By Jennifer Strailey
Supermarkets embrace the season's spate of fresh produce with novel merchandising ideas bound to boost sales.
The new year has brought good news galore about America's growing appetite for fresh produce.
Now, with spring around the corner, grocers from coast to coast are preparing to deliver the season's bounty with better-than-ever merchandising, in-store education and social media outreach.
"Fresh and seasonal is here to stay," say market researchers at The Hartman Group, whose newly released Ideas in Food 2013 offers a cultural take on what we'll be eating this year. While we'll always be a nation of meat eaters, assures the Bellevue, Wash.-based company, consumers are "letting plant-based products take center stage" on their plates.
Produce has not only begun to play a more significant role at mealtime, it's also fueling the nation's insatiable snack habit. The NPD Group's recent Snacking in America report finds that fresh fruit is more than just the top snack food consumed in America, it's also one of the fastest-growing, outpacing both chocolate and potato chips as the most popular snack.
In addition to its healthy appeal, fresh fruit has earned its place as America's favorite snack food due to its popularity among all age groups, notes Port Washington, N.Y.-based NPD. Retailers and suppliers of produce can expand upon this trend, says NPD Food and Beverage Industry Analyst Darren Seifer, "with packaging innovation and promotions for on-the-go activities when [fruit is] least likely to be consumed."
This spring, purveyors of produce are taking advantage of the heightened interest in fruits and vegetables with dynamic displays and plenty of local flavor. With product emphasis varying from region to region, Progressive Grocer spoke with produce gurus from three different parts of the country to get the pulse on fresh food retailing in America.
Cherry Sprout Market
The market prides itself on the freshness and quality of its produce, especially its seasonal selection. "But because you can't please the contemporary customer without having things like grapes year-round, we do source certain products from far away," explains Nichols.
Local produce is Nichols' passion, so spring has her rhapsodic for radishes, greens and artichokes. "It's always such a joy and relief to see the return of local spring produce like radishes, baby turnips that are tender and creamy and really mild, local collards, and mustards," she says. "It's also nice to break up that wall of green on the wet rack with a little color from bunched carrots and beets."
Cherry Sprout sources collard and mustard greens locally eight months of the year, but carries them year-round. One of the only places in town that offers turnip greens, flat mustards, collards and curly greens, the market "has a legacy of soul food," says Nichols, and she is determined it remain a destination for those items.
When it comes to spring produce displays, Cherry Sprout considers more than vibrant color. "We also like to use the geometry of the fruit or vegetable," notes Nichols. "With artichokes, for example, we'll arrange them so they are all pointing in the same direction. I think they look really pretty when they're tilted a little to the side, so you can see that nice thistle shape."
Displays that give the impression of abundance without over-stacking highly perishable product are equally important. One of Nichols' favorite tricks is to take a large basket and then place either a shelf liner or other, smaller basket upside down within that basket and arrange artichokes within. "The basket looks like it's bursting with artichokes, but it's really only a single layer deep," she says.
Broad and bountiful displays of seasonal produce won't be the only new feature at Cherry Sprout this spring. The grocer is also implementing new signage throughout the store. The market's in-house graphic designer has revamped all of the produce signs to include a line drawing of the fruit or vegetable.
"When there's so much variety in the produce area, it's really nice to have a sign with visual recognition," says Nichols. "It's helpful for customers to look at a sign and see a picture of celery root and the price. It keeps them from feeling overwhelmed by choice."
Like most retailers, Cherry Sprout customers are price-conscious. "Being able to see the price is critical," adds Nichols. "You're not going to sell much produce if customers don't know the price."
Berries – one of the hottest sellers in produce today – get special attention during spring at Cherry Sprout. Three years ago, the market began selling canning jars and other supplies for making jams and jellies.
"It's lent an old-fashioned, country or general store feeling to the market, which is really appealing," says Nichols. "It has also dovetailed nicely with our spring berry case offer." The market sells cases of berries at a special price for customers who want to can and preserve. If the berries aren't in stock, customers can place an order and pick it up the next day.
But perhaps the most compelling sign of spring at Cherry Sprout is beyond its front door. The market displays produce outside the storefront year-round, and spring means eye-catching displays of artichokes, strawberries and asparagus. "We've really learned from our customers," says Nichols. "If they drive by and they don't see the produce out front, they think that nothing is going on inside!"
"Spring is absolutely the most fun time of year in produce," says Clarksville Assistant Store Manager Elias Castillo, who was recently promoted from produce manager of the 12,000-square-foot store. "There's so much great produce coming out, so there's always something to talk to customers about."
In Maryland, spring is wild ramp season. Also known as wild leeks, the spicy greens are a delicious complement to the other seasonal greens in Roots' produce department. "We get our wild ramps from a local certified-organic farm, and we build a big spring display to support them," explains Castillo.
Roots showcases the wild ramps on ice trays placed in a highly visible location. "I recommend them sautéed with shallots and spring kale," says Castillo. "It's simple to prepare, and they taste amazing."
As a natural food store, Roots Market invests heavily in local produce. The names of the now-familiar farms are featured prominently throughout the produce department. "This isn't a regular store," says Castillo. "We want to give it a special vibe."
That's a lot of green for a store with just 8,400 square feet of retail space, 1,500 of which is devoted to produce. The mix, says Gillotte, is 80 percent organic and 10 percent to 25 percent local, depending on the season.
At Wheatsville, spring means strawberries. "Every March, we do a big push with Poteet strawberries. Poteet is sort of like the strawberry capital of Texas," explains Gillotte. "We use one of our two refrigerated mobile cases and put it at the front of the produce department, so as soon as you walk in, you walk right into a big pile of strawberries."
The bakery participates in the promotion, featuring shortcake, whipped cream and other complementary items alongside the strawberries. "We only have one month for the local strawberries, so we make a big deal out of it," says Gillotte. "We try to get customers to expand their strawberry eating, and give them new ways to serve them, usually through recipes in our weekly newsletter, on Facebook and through social media. During March, we want everyone leaving here with strawberries."
Spring is especially dynamic in Austin, when local carrots, greens and early tomatoes are harvested. "In the summer, when the rest of the country is going gangbusters with fruit and vegetables, our supply has sort of dried up because it gets so hot here," explains Gillotte. "For us, February and March are the really exciting months for local produce."
Customers enter the Wheatsville Co-op through the produce department. As first impressions are everything, Gillotte believes produce is where the story of the season should be told. "It sets the tone for the rest of the shopping trip," he asserts.
At Easter, tender spring asparagus is merchandised in an iced cooler placed in a high-traffic area. "We basically put the mobile ice units right in the customers' way," says Gillotte. "From there, as customers shop the store, they're thinking of what else to buy for the meal."
Other strong spring sellers include a local Romanesco broccoli, also known as Roman cauliflower. "It's crazy, weird and beautiful to look at, and it tastes really good. It definitely draws people in," says Gillotte. Wheatsville typically places it next to purple cauliflower, which sparks sales of both.
Like Cherry Sprout Market, Wheatsville's first sign of spring starts outside. The co-op sells starter plants from a local farm that are merchandised outside. "They're not a huge money maker, but they're a decent ring," admits Gillotte. "It just feels like spring when you see the plants outside the store. We figure if people are growing food at home, they're probably cooking at home, and that kind of customer is good for the whole store."
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Deerfield IL 60015
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