Produce(ing) a new start

With the New Year comes New Year’s resolutions, often creating opportunities for retailers to promote fresh fruits and vegetables.

After indulging in delectable treats from Halloween through New Year’s, many consumers may find that their clothes are a bit snug. As January rolls around those same consumers start thinking about visiting a forgotten friend—the produce section.

“All produce seems to experience a spike in sales come January,” says Julia Inestroza, marketing director for Los Angeles-based Gourmet Trading Co. “It is not only a health resolution but many people want to not eat out so much, so we see a shift to cooking at home and buying more fresh fruit and vegetables.”

Industry observers say there also seems to be a carryover of produce purchases made during the holidays. According to the Chicago-based NPD Group’s SnackTrack Holidays Christmas Profile, although candy is the top snack item purchased for the holidays, with 50% of adults who celebrate Christmas purchasing candy, fresh fruit is also a popular choice, with 36% of survey respondents buying fruit. Many observers say that if people were trying to snack healthfully during the holidays, they will probably try to continue this behavior in the New Year.

There are certain produce items that perform particularly well in January. According to Chicago-based Nielsen Perishables Group, packaged salad had its third highest sales week of the year during January. For the week ended Jan. 14, packaged salad had sales of $3,318 per store, which was 8.5% higher than packaged salad average weekly per-store sales for the 52 weeks ended Oct. 27. Carrots also do very well among New Year’s resolvers. Nielsen Perishables Group reports that carrots have consistently high sales in January, with peak weeks peak coming early in the month.

Of course there is room for other fruits and vegetables. Suzanne Wolter, director of marketing for Selah, Wash.-based Rainier Fruit Co., says that apples and pears do especially well in January, due to their health benefits. “Both are considered nutrient- dense foods, low in calories, high in nutritional benefits,” she says.

It helps that apples and pears are readily available throughout the month. “January is the perfect time for newer varieties such as Lady Alice, Junami, Pink Lady, Jazz and other developing varieties as local apple varieties finish and shelf space opens up,” says Wolter. She adds that Rainier Fruit will have supplies of Honeycrisp apples into May. As for pear availability, D’Anjou sales pick up in January as supplies of Bartletts dwindle.

The extended availability of fresh fruits and vegetables can help sales stay strong beyond January. Although most New Year’s resolutions fade with time, certain consumer behaviors last much longer. Continued health-related trends include eating raw foods and using fresh or natural flavors for seasoning. These healthy eating trends help all produce, especially vitamin and antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables. “Those super foods are gaining the most ground,” says Inestroza. “Blueberries and asparagus both get a lot of attention for their health benefits as well as the fact that they taste so good.”

Of course no one is relying solely on consumers’ New Year’s resolutions to drive sales. Just as gyms offer membership sign-up specials in January, produce companies are developing promotions to turn consumers’ healthy intentions into real sales. The efforts range from encouraging retailers to build elaborate, sales-boosting displays to creating packaging that consumers favor.

The Idaho-E. Oregon Onion Committee (IEOOC) sponsors a retail display contest, offering prizes to stores that build the best onion displays encouraging consumers to choose healthful produce for the New Year. This year, the IEOOC’s retail display contest focuses on healthy grilling and tailgating for the football bowl season, and is partnering with the grill company Weber-Stephens. To get consumers to think about onions as an important ingredient in these grilling and tailgating meals, the displays often feature a Weber kettle grill, which Weber provided to the stores free of charge, as well as cross merchandised items such as ketchup, pickles and other condiments. “The onion category continues to enjoy strong sales well after the holidays have past, partially because of promotions such as this,” says Sherise Jones, marketing director for the Parma, Idaho-based IEOOC.

Displays are important for apples and pears too, especially for some of the newer varieties that carry a premium price and a higher dollar ring, says Wolter. “Store positioning and display space are key to introducing consumers to a new variety. It’s not enough to just allocate the space. New variety displays should really draw the consumer in,” she says.

One way to draw the consumer in is by offering nutritional information, something many consumers seem to be seeking. “Retailers should be communicating the health benefits of the produce department and specific fruits heavily during the first several weeks of the year,” says Wolter. “The produce department is the true all-natural and healthy section of the entire store and should be promoted as such.”

Observers say the produce department is facing heavy competition from consumer packaged goods manufacturers that are now marketing items as low-fat, healthy options that are easy to prepare. The produce industry also has to fight the perception that fresh fruits and vegetables are expensive and difficult to prepare. To deliver this message, Wolter suggests offering consumers simple how-to tips, health benefit information and the week’s featured fruits, through social media. “We noticed increased hits for QR codes that are placed on POS material about new varieties. Our QR codes link consumers to a recipe that is switched out weekly along with more information about the new variety and an option to link to our website,” says Wolter.

Wolter adds that there are also opportunities to increase sales of ripened pears through the process of conditioning. According to officials at the Pear Bureau Northwest, based in Milwaukie, Ore., consumers are willing to pay more for conditioned pears and retailers that implemented a conditioned pear program enjoyed sales increases of 25% to 50% in the first year. The conditioning process entails storing boxes of pears in a temperature-regulated room. Ethylene, the gas emitted by  pears as well as other fruits such as bananas, helps ripen the fruit.

In addition to ripe fruit and nutritional information, consumers also want recipe ideas. Retailers can boost sales even further by providing shoppers with simple preparation suggestions as well as health info, says Inestroza. For example, she says retailers can offer a five-minute roasted asparagus recipe with a photo and information on the fact that asparagus is high in fiber, low in carbohydrates and high in folic acid. The Gourmet Trading Co. website offers recipes for blueberries, SuperBlues, blackberries and white, green and purple asparagus.

Inestroza adds that more consumers are seeking product in a bag. “With food safety fears at a new high, bagged product gives the consumer piece of mind, while also enabling longer shelf life and less shrink for the retailer,” she says. “We have seen shrink reduced by over 10% after moving to a bagged program on asparagus.”

Dionysios Christou, vice president of marketing for Del Monte Fresh Produce, based in Coral Gables, Fla., says that retailers can also increase January sales through promotions that encourage healthy eating. “It is important to promote fruits and vegetables as a natural way to maintain a strong immune system during the flu and cold season,” he says. Del Monte uses social media to promote produce for healthy eating, giving away 200 $50.00 Del Monte Fresh Produce coupon booklets to help Facebook visitors “stay fresh and healthy during the holiday season” and posting recipes and photos on Pinterest. 

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