Shaping up

As more consumers try to slim down, savvy retailers are expanding their produce departments.

By Elizabeth Louise Hatt

If the key to a successful business is location, location, location, then the key to good health is nutrition, nutrition, nutrition. It is also no secret that obesity is on the rise, attracting mainstream attention nationwide.

It seems consumers are getting the message as they are making their health concerns clear with an evident shift in buying habits that includes more fruits, vegetables and all-natural products in their carts. Fortunately for retailers, higher-priced fresh produce items are not just good for the body, but also for the bottom line. Many produce growers and commodity boards are lending a hand by gearing their promotions towards healthy eating and lifestyle habits.

“People now understand the tie between health and nutrition,” says Seth Pemsler, vice president of retail and international for the Idaho Potato Commission (IPC). “An educational process has occurred; in the past we didn’t know anything about carbohydrates and sugars or that there was even such things as complex carbohydrates. People have become nutritionally conscious.”

The awareness is coming none to soon. Unhealthy weights—both those considered “obese,” a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 30 or higher, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and “overweight,” a BMI of 25 to 29.9—have been attributed to an increased risk of coronary heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and certain cancers among other diseases.

“We’ve been fighting obesity, but without using the term,” says Pemsler. “Obesity is not a term you want to point out. You want to point out the good parts, like eating healthy, feeling good and being in shape.” The IPC’s entire campaign revolves around nutrition featuring health and fitness expert Denise Austin, who has been in the Eagle, Idaho-based commodity board’s commercials for more than six years.

To emphasize the nutritional value of potatoes, the IPC advertises a host of recipes and contests that include them. “We hold a healthy recipe contest every month. We have more than 500 recipes but some of the old photos didn’t translate into digital so we now have a recipe photo contest,  the winner is awarded $500, and we get a great photo to go with the recipe,” says Pemsler. “We want to promote the nutritional value of our product; and we aren’t the only ones saying, ‘Hey, we’re good for you.’”

Well-Pict Berries’ campaigns always feature a strong health component, including a list of the vitamins and nutrients in its berries. “Con­sumers are very concerned about getting the right amount of essential vitamins, minerals and nutrients in their daily diets, for both themselves and their children,” says Dan Crowley, sales manager for the Watsonville, Calif.-based grower. “Eating right isn’t always easy, so informed decisions need to be made in the grocery store—especially the produce aisle—in order to eat better at home.”

Teaming up!
Retailers cannot do it alone. Third-party groups are ramping up their resources, providing retailers with information, research studies, funding and promotional materials, say industry observers. By teaming up with organizations, such as the Produce for Better Health Foun­dation (PBH), the organization behind the Fruits & Veggies—More Matters initiative, retailers can offer cooking advice, nutrition information and shopping tips.

“PBH brings together and coordinates the efforts between various channels. It offers retailers a lot of resources, including in-store promotional materials that discuss the benefits of vegetables as well as aggregate research findings on its website,” says Mac Riggan, vice president of marketing for Chelan, Wash.-based Chelan Fresh Marketing, who also serves on the PBH board. “It has really helped make people aware of what is going on in the industry. We’ve been involved with the board for more than five years; they provided us with the ability to do things we didn’t otherwise have the resources for.”

Making a prominent appearance in grocery stores, Produce for Kids (PFK) puts produce and healthy meal ideas in the spotlight. Founded in 2002 by John Shuman, owner of Shuman Produce, to help educate parents about the benefits of eating fresh produce and to raise money for the Children’s Miracle Network, PFK provides participating retailers with POS materials and meal cards for in-store display.

The featured meal cards are designed to be quick and easy-to-prepare meals that appeal to all members of the family. “Our goal is to make it easy for moms,” says Kim Lathbury, marketing director for the Reidsville, Ga.-based organization. “Mom knows she can serve everything from the main dish on the recipe card to the juice and side dish that comes with it—and know that she’s feeding her family right.” The organization will even work with retailers to take it one step further, setting up in-store meal demos for sampling.

When it comes to sampling in a retail environment culinary expert and personal chef Diane Henderiks, R.D., also known as Dietician in the Kitchen, says the key is to focus on uncommon healthy foods. “You need to come up with different ways to make good-for-you foods that people might otherwise turn away from. Nobody needs to taste a string bean,” she says. “You need to offer an item that isn’t typical, like kale—sauté it up and put it on a pizza to sample.”

Sampling is especially effective when in­troducing children to new foods, adds Lath­bury. “Children are more likely to try something new if they are able to see, taste and touch it themselves.”

Keeping kids healthy
According to a study published in the research journal Obesity, children’s desire to eat a particular food is influenced by the emotions others exhibit. The study reports that expressions of people happily eating a child’s favorite food made them want the food more, while an expression of disgust tended to make the children want it less.

“Parents can help their kids by setting good examples; if kids see parents reach for fruit rather than junk food, that is a very powerful message,” says Tony Freytag, director of sales and marketing for Cashmere, Wash.-based Crunch Pak. “Parents can also make healthy snack options available. It is just as easy to take a multi-pack of our 2-ounce bags of sliced apples to a soccer game as it is a bag of cookies.”

Crunch Pak’s snack products, including sliced apples, grapes and carrots, were created with all ages in mind, but to target kids specifically, the company put out a Disney-branded line, and reaches out to younger generations through social media like Facebook and Twitter. “We work together to create a dialogue with our younger consumers: we ask questions, offer prizes, anything we can do to solicit input and engage consumers. We want to know their favorite apples and their favorite size packages so we can give them the products they want to live healthier lifestyles,” says Freytag.

Crunch Pak recently began targeting a new age group—college students. “We took the top sellers of our Disney Foodles line and created a spin-off called Snackers that we’ve been marketing to college kids,” says Freytag. “It has been really well received.”

Well-Pict Berries is looking at the opposite age group—the very young. The berry grower is partnering with Anchor Bay Entertainment’s release of Chuggington: It’s Training Time, based on the animated TV program aimed at three- to six -year-olds. “We are featuring $3 off with the purchase of any 1-pound Well-Pict clamshell of strawberries and any Chuggington DVD,” says Crowley. “We hope to get kids excited about eating berries. Studies show that children are much more likely to eat a food when it is associated with a character they love, so this should make it easier for moms and dads to get their kids to eat healthy.” To reach younger generations, the company has begun utilizing social media outlets to share information about its products and announce new promotions and specials.

Chelan Fresh Marketing is also capitalizing on kids’ love for all things Disney with a promotion beginning in June featuring the movie Cars 2. “Consumers recognize the packaging and want to be associated with it,” says Riggan.

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