The new local

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With fruit and vegetable consumption on the rise, keeping the produce department stocked is not easy. Produce companies are building up their import programs and are retailers ready for the challenge.

Local has taken on a new meaning. In a global economy, buying local can mean anything from the corner field to a farm across the country to orchards a hemisphere away.

As the volume of produce imported into the country continues to grow, so have consumers’ expectations. Shoppers expect to see a colorful harvest of fresh fruit and vegetables throughout every season. Where it comes from is not the top priority, say industry observers—quality and food safety is.

“There is a growing desire among end consumers to know more about where their food comes from and how their produce was grown or handled, but what is most important is the quality and the food safety programs in place,” says Brian Kastick, president of Oso Sweet based in Charleston, W.Va.

This is particularly true in the sweet onion category—one that has established a reputation for bringing in high quality product from South America. Oso Sweet grows 80% of its supply in Peru and Chile.

According to officials at Shuman Produce, consumer research shows that shoppers identify sweet onions by their flat Granex shape and yellow skin. Officials for the Reidsville, Ga.-based grower say fewer than 5% of consumers are sensitive to where a sweet onion is grown.

Consumers accept that a lot of produce is imported, says John Shuman, president and director of sales. “Stocking only true, Granex sweet onions will not only maintain a consistent product at retail, but consumers will come to expect a premium quality and flavor from Peruvian sweet onions.”

Sweet onions drastic growth in popularity makes it a necessity to keep them in constant supply, say observers, especially due to the limited domestic growing regions. To ensure sufficient volume and quality for consumers year-round, The Sweet Onion Trading Co., based in Melbourne, Fla., strives to have crops available in multiple regions per season. “We try to stay domestic until November with overlap in October. Peru’s ‘sweet spot’ starts with the August harvest so we wait for this to occur for the best quality,” says Barry Rogers, president.

According to observers, Peru is one of the fastest growing agricultural areas for a wide range of produce, specifically sweet onions, but also blueberries and other tree fruits. “In just a few short years Peru has brought themselves to a point on the global scale,” says Eric Crawford, president of Fresh Results, which produces grapes, avocados, mangoes and asparagus in Peru. “The country is producing commercial levels of very high quality product and its windows are a little bit different than Chile. Retailers are becoming very engaged in making sure they have the Peruvian product available.”

Formed about six years ago as the marketing arm for Blueberries S.A. in Argentina, the Sunrise, Fla.-based company imports from Mexico, Chile and Argentina, bringing in approximately 20% of imported blueberries, which is one category that has seen tremendous growth by offering 12-month availability.

By maintaining a solid supply throughout the year, blueberries have become a popular item for foodservice dishes and contribute to residual winter-month berry patch displays. The Sonoma, Calif.-based Chilean Fresh Fruit Association (CFFA) imported 56,000 tons last season from Chile. “Consumers are beginning to understand the nutritional value of blueberries, and as they learn new uses for them throughout all times of the year, sales are increasing,” says Tom Tjerandsen, managing director for North America for the CFFA.

In addition to blueberries, citrus is another category that has seen a surge, he says. A relatively new item from Chile, navel and clementine imports totaled near 74,000 tons last year and retailers have embraced the program.

Year-round produce is one of the driving forces behind produce department growth, say observers; they can add a permanent spot for multiple varieties of fruit and exotic imported fruits. Retailers are recognizing that the produce department is generating a substantial portion of retailer profits—about 10% of the dollars that go through the register and about 17% of the profit, says Tjerandsen. “As it grows retailers are dedicating more space to a 12-month supply.” It is far less expensive for them to not have to swap out items. They can have a berry patch and know they will have blueberries, blackberries, raspberries and strawberries all year long. These new profit centers are one of the reason we have continued to focus on growing the produce section.”

Less is more
Saving time with displays is only half the equation; working with only one or two suppliers for a particular category minimizes work on the backend. Fewer suppliers means fewer invoices, says Mac Riggan, director of marketing for Chelan Fresh Marketing based in Chelan, Wash. “It results in less processing work to select a single supplier to be their category provider. The retailer doesn’t necessarily care where it comes from as long as it is clean, safe, affordable and good value. It is a burden to deal with three, four, or six different guys.”

A permanent place on the store shelf has led to a new definition of seasonality. Some fruits and vegetables have found their way into traditionally off-season recipes or novel uses bringing them into season all year long.

Take apples, for example. There are a lot of tie-ins in autumn, such as baking, the holidays and harvest, says Addie Pobst, import coordinator for Sedro-Woolley, Wash.-based CF Fresh. “There are no holidays in the spring that make people think of baking, but apples are typically now considered a year-round fruit for snacking. They have gone the way of bananas and become a seasonless product. Most shoppers do not stop to think about where it came from, what variety it is, if its in season or how long its been in storage.”

Roughly a quarter of the grower’s supply came from overseas in 2011. A volume that was nearly unimaginable when the first import shipment was received about 15 years ago, says Pobst. “Today we have sizeable volumes coming out of Washington and California with supplies lasting through March or April, but in the late 1990s the supplies of domestic organic apples and pears did not last as long. We gradually worked on both sides of the program—imports and domestics—until we achieved year-round supply.”

Another fruit that made a seamless transition from a seasonal to a permanent resident in the produce department is watermelon. Mostly imported from Mexico, watermelons made their way to the U.S. in response to consumer interest and have since increased the category drastically. In the past 20 years, from 1991 to 2011, watermelon imports increased from 7% to 21% of total supply—231 million pounds to 1,044 million. “Consumer research told us that if watermelons were available 12-months of the year, people would buy them,” says Gordon Hunt, director of marketing and communications, National Watermelon Promotions Board, based in Orlando, Fla. “It used to be a summertime fruit but consumption spikes at the beginning of the year and holds throughout the winter; it has so many nutritional benefits that people are eating it for health and weight loss.”

Delbert Bland, founder/owner of Bland Farms, based in Glennville, Ga., says the effort produce growers go through to import top quality produce shows retailers and end consumers that they are willing “to go to whatever extent it takes to get the very best product they can.

“There isn’t an alternative to growing this type of onion in the U.S. during the winter months, so to grow this flat, Granex top onion, you have to be in Peru,” he says.

Promos that wow
Varying growing seasons open the door for eye-catching, in-store promotional opportunities. Using characteristics of each growing region can help boost the category to a top sales item in the department, says Brian Kastick, president of Oso Sweet, based in Charleston, W. Va. “Each growing region gives the retailers a chance to do something to catch the consumers’ attention. You can have a lot of fun building displays for the Peruvian season, Chilean season, Mexican, domestic, and so on.” Here are some ideas to capitalize on.

Heads up!
Saskatchewan, Canada may not be the first place one would expect there to be an overwhelming demand for watermelons in the middle of winter. But according to Gordon Hunt, director of marketing and communications for the National Watermelon Board, retailers were flying them to Calgary during the Grey Cup (the championship game of the Canadian Football League) for fans to wear on their heads. “There is a fanatical following for the Saskatchewan Roughriders and they make helmets out of watermelons to wear at the games,” says Hunt. “The team’s colors are green, grey and black. There are sometimes thousands of them in the stands.”

A picture worth a thousand words…
One retailer went to the root of the business and gave Oso Sweet’s onions a face. Using photos of the actual growers on their farms with short bios, such as “My name is Fernando. I have been growing onions for 20 years, this is my farm,” the retailer added a personal element. “The photos really sell it with the growers on the farm,” says Kastick. “You can see we aren’t some Fortune 25 company and that behind the scenes there is a farmer who makes his living growing vegetables and has been for a long time. It was really cool and helped grow sales.”

retailers win big
Shoppers and retailers participating in the Chilean Avocado Importers Association’s (CAIA) contests can both come away winners. This season $65,000 in American Express or grocery store gift cards are up for grabs to produce personnel who submit a photo of their displays utilizing Avocado from Chile POS and product. Retailers receive a code to submit online where they can scratch off to see what they won. “Our unique online reward program ‘Scratchers’ is a first in the industry,” says Maggie Bezart, director of marketing.
Consumers have the opportunity to win through a variety of monthly contests. The Washington, D.C.-based organization will be giving away $40,000 in $500 grocery gift cards through its social media and in-store Avocado Lovers Club. “Our consumers contests are unique as they also reward the retail store where the consumer shops,” says Bezart.

Pretty in pink
Customers are used to looking for the color yellow when shopping for sweet onions, but for the month of October, Bland Farms, based in Glennville, Ga., dressed its sweets up in pink to support breast cancer awareness month. “We use pink labels, pink bags, pink bins and even did some billboards this year to show our dedication,” says Delbert Bland, founder. “It is a lot of fun and people feel good about giving back to charity; everyone has been touched by breast cancer.” In its second year, the promotion has brought a lot of attention to the brand. “Sales seems to be up; it’s a pretty cool deal.”

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