California dreamin’

The Golden State’s natural resources make it a top produce provider.

By Deena M. Amato-McCoy

According to the Beach Boys, “The West Coast has the sunshine,” and Katy Perry sings that in California, “the grass is really greener…. It must be something in the water.” For some, these are merely lyrics. But for California growers, these fundamental resources help them create unique flavors and varieties of fresh merchandise that consumers across the nation crave.

California earned the nickname The Golden State for a reason. It is one of the few states that has sunshine a majority of the year, “and since sun is needed to grow plants, it is a natural asset we benefit from,” says Suzette Overgaag, vice president and CFO of North Shore Greenhouses, a Thermal, Calif.-based supplier of living herbs.

“The quality and quantity of products that are produced in California are the envy of the country and of the world,” says Mike Aiton, marketing director for Prime Time Inter­national, a Coachella, Calif.-based supplier of peppers.

California’s agricultural reputation has also proved advantageous for Mariani Nut Co., based in Winters, Calif.  “We know that consumers respond to and trust the California name, so being a California grower, we emphasize our origin on our packaging and product names,” says Matt Mariani, the company’s sales and marketing department manager.

California produce has also gained attention as more shoppers replace processed foods with fresh options. This is especially true across the berry category. “California is far and above the top berry-producing state in the country and world,” says Dan Crowley, sales manager for Watsonville, Calif.-based Well-Pict Berries. “It has the ideal climate, such as cool, foggy nights for firmness of fruit, and sunny, warm days for sugar and shine.”

Taking advantage of microclimates
San Diego-based Andrew & Williamson also takes advantage of the state’s microclimates to deliver a better variety of strawberries year-round. For example, the grower plants seeds in fields by the ocean where an average temperature is 60 degrees, as well as two miles inland where temperatures can hit 90 degrees.

“We are very consumer-centric in how we approach our selection of variety and that impacts what and where we decide to grow our berries,” says Mark Munger, Andrew & Williamson’s vice president of marketing.

While there is a push among retailers and shoppers to buy local, grocers hoping to keep sought-after items available year-round look to California suppliers to sustain the demand.  “When grocers want to push ‘local’ produce, they may carry local berries during specific times of the year, for example,” says Jim Grabowski, Well-Pict’s merchandising manager.

To support this movement, some suppliers are creating programs that help chains localize merchandise. For example, Andrew & Williamson works with plant breeders and uses innovative technology to help Midwest retail partners create a marketing program for tomatoes each summer, according to company officials.

“Every July, tomatoes locally grown in the Midwest are at their peak,” Munger explains. “Each year, we deliver a six-week program that supplies locally grown tomatoes that are good quality and great tasting.”

Another trend positively impacting sales is that as many consumers continue to reduce discretionary purchases, they seem to regard fresh produce as a small luxury, according to industry observers. “Raspberries, blueberries and blackberries have seen unprecedented growth in the last 10 years, led by the healthy properties they provide,” says Munger.

Tree nuts are another small luxury, and thanks to their versatility, unique taste and health and nutritional benefits, tree nuts have weathered the recessionary storm. With year-round consumption, Mariani is shipping even quantities of walnuts and almonds throughout the year, compared to historical seasonal fourth-quarter sales spikes.

Sensible snacking
Consumers are also treating themselves to sun-dried tomatoes, especially as they look for new fun, healthier snacking options. “Many consumers are rediscovering the Mediter­ranean diet, and sun-dried tomatoes are part of this trend,” says Mary Mooney, director of sales and marketing for Chico, Calif.-based Mooney Farms, a supplier that markets sun-dried tomatoes under the Bella Sun Luci brand.

Demand for peppers is also increasing, with 77% of all consumers now buying fresh peppers on a regular basis, a 7% increase from a year ago, according to Prime Time’s Aiton.

Consumer interest is prompting chains to regularly add more SKUs. “Peppers are a versatile item, used extensively in cooking as well as being consumed raw,” he says.

Growers are working with chains to sustain consumer demand for California-grown produce, and interestingly, these strategies do not revolve around rock-bottom prices, industry experts note. While low prices will drive consumers into stores and toward the merchandise, “this strategy can be damaging to retailers and farmers in the long-term,” says Munger.

Retailers are in search of innovative ideas that will set them apart from the competition. The quality of a display is one way to stay first and foremost in consumers’ minds. Bakersfield, Calif.-based The Garlic Co., for example, encourages its retail partners to buy quantities of garlic more frequently and in smaller quantities to ensure freshness.

“We also are trying to provide packaging that extends shelf-life and presents the product in a way that makes it more attractive longer,” says Corrine Pettit, the supplier’s retail sales manager.

To extend the shelf-life of strawberries, Munger suggests that retailers stay mindful of the cold chain and how this translates to in-store displays. “Using refrigerated tables and upgrading display equipment can help chains keep the category appealing, reduce shrink and increase sales,” he explains.

Merchandising is also a priority. Prime Time encourages retailers to leverage the visual power of its colorful red, green, yellow and orange peppers. “The spectacular array of colors, sizes and shapes are a real eye catcher when grouped together and aggressively merchandised,” Aiton says.

Cross-merchandising is also boosting sales among California produce. There is an opportunity to use this strategy to market garlic, for example. “By placing a little fresh garlic nicely in the meat department would be a good cross-merchandising option,” says Pettit of The Garlic Co. “The key to successful cross promotions however, is to appoint associates to keep the displays fresh and nice looking.”

Salad by the numbers
Monterey, Calif.-based Dole is also helping to stimulate consumers’ culinary imaginations with new bagged salad packaging and an accompanying marketing and promotional campaign. In March, the supplier will be replacing the numerical on-pack salad guides based on taste and texture scales with a word-based system that relates with how consumers shop for salads. Working with its team of chefs, Dole developed a scale of consumer-friendly taste and texture descriptors.

Taste scales now ranges from “Sweet & Subtle” to “Zesty & Bold” to “Complex & Robust,” and the texture scale defines “Tender,” Crisp” and “Crunchy” options.  The packages also feature an on-pack color-coding system to help shoppers locate the right blend among Dole’s 26 varieties. Blue and green reveals the sweet/subtle blends; yellow and orange define the zestier/bold blends; and pink and purple are for more complex/robust varieties.

Dole is augmenting the transition with an innovative marketing campaign. The company will supply retailers with interactive online ads and mobile marketing elements, including online links to new product recipes, pairings, nutrition and other information. Quick Response (QR) and short codes on Dole point-of-sale materials will give shoppers access to product information. Dole is also expanding its social media program that features the Dole Salad Guide spokesperson.

North Shore Greenhouses is also using electronic media to market the strong living herb category. By creating customized marketing toolkits for retailers, officials at North Shore Greenhouses say the company is helping grocers sustain this growth.

“We identify what they see as challenges, then we work to provide a solution along with other innovative ideas, such as changes in packaging or shipping methods, to drive sales and efficiencies,” explains Overgaag.

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