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    FRESH FOOD: Kid-Friendly Produce: Small victories

    Can the produce department draw kids like the cereal and cookie aisles do?

    It's an age-old dilemma: getting kids to eat their vegetables -- and fruits, too, for that matter. For those parents who haven't given up, help is on the way, thanks to a lively harvest of new kid-friendly products for the produce department. Now, manufacturers say, retailers only have to be willing to play along.

    With 96 percent of children between the ages of 2 and 12 falling short of the recommended fruit and vegetable consumption, increasing produce consumption to meet the recommendations is one of the most important family-friendly things retailers and suppliers can do for their customers, notes Elizabeth Pivonka, president of the Wilmington, Del.-based Produce for Better Health Foundation (PBH).

    Pivonka says some strides have been made in recent years to get kids more interested and excited about fresh produce, but "a lack of time and know-how makes it even more challenging for many parents today -- hence the recent troubling predictions of a reversal in life expectancy gains due to the rapid rise in obesity, especially among children."

    In the plus column, however, are such efforts as PBH's new "More Matters!" brand, a higher number of socially responsible manufacturing practices, the more active role that parents are taking in school lunch programs, and the introduction and merchandising of new kid-friendly fresh produce lines. Pivonka is optimistic that the next few years will bring on "the tipping point, when many small things will add up to really big changes."

    It's been a long time coming. "We've been talking for the past few years about how the drums are beating and how the stars are aligning," she admits. "But I really do believe that over the next five years, all of these combined factors will continue to build momentum and make a bigger impact than what we've seen in the past five years, during which time we've also seen a lot of changes as well."

    She calls the latest produce lines being launched exclusively for children "a stellar step in the right direction."

    For the momentum to really lead to change, retailers will also have to be in step. Bill Crosset, who heads up business development for Crosset Co., a large Independence, Ky.-based produce and floral distributor, echoes the sentiments of many manufacturers when he says that while the market is definitely ripe for a dedicated assortment of new kid-friendly produce items, "devoting shelf space is really going to be key."

    This is particularly true for smaller stores, many of which don't have the large vertical upright refrigerated cases that are de rigueur for large-format retailers, says Crosset. "The items will also need to be positioned where children can visualize them as easily as their parents. Do I think it makes sense? Absolutely. But getting shelf space is going to be the challenge."

    Indianapolis-based Imagination Farms, LLC is trying to meet that challenge with the support of some Disney magic. The supplier is launching a new line of Disney-branded fresh produce in partnership with Burbank, Calif.-based Disney Consumer Products. The partners will begin marketing the new fresh produce line under the Disney Gardens label this summer, starting with stone fruit.

    The partners will continue to introduce additional produce categories at retail, building to a projected 200 kid-friendly SKUs by the end of 2007, including sliced apples, grapes, apples, citrus, berries, value-added vegetables, salads, and bananas.

    "We're on a mission, literally, to increase the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables," explains Matthew Caito, Imagination Farms' c.e.o. "Although there have been several products based on specific SKUs or categories geared toward children, we haven't seen anybody go in a coordinated manner across multiple categories. We'll be the first to provide a complete approach toward marketing fresh produce to children."

    A major objective is to elevate children's fresh produce experience "beyond meal or snacktime" to give kids a more intimate knowledge of nutrition, and help them recognize the values and flavors fresh produce has to offer.

    With children directly influencing over $50 billion a year in purchases at retail, it's about time. Says Caito, "When kids walk down the cereal aisle, they're bombarded with characters, images, and advertising. Conversely, in the fresh produce department, there's nothing to get them involved. We want to take the nag factor in the cereal aisle and move it into the produce department. We plan to educate and animate the produce department through innovative packaging and branding, exciting point-of-sale materials, and new product combinations, to create a seamless brand in produce."

    The goals are ambitious, but the approach can be tailored and measured. Imagination Farms has also developed a "Destination of Innovation" concept that can be incorporated within a four-foot section.

    Industry enthusiasm

    Don Goodwin, Imagination Farms' c.o.o., says the strategy is meeting with enthusiasm from the industry. "We can sense the feeling of excitement about the concept each time we meet with our suppliers and retailers." Product innovation will include portion control, taste profiling, and "funtastic" packaging, he adds.

    A "cost-effective line of organics" is also in the mix, says Caito.

    Wenatchee, Wash.-based Stemilt Growers, Inc. and Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit educational organization behind "Sesame Street," are also engaged in a major partnership.

    Stemilt marketing director Roger Pepperl says the project follows a successful Stemilt cherry promotion last summer, featuring Sesame Workshop's "Healthy Habits for Life" initiative, for which Stemilt created cherry merchandising displays highlighted by a cherry-juggling Elmo, as well as nutrition facts about cherries.

    "Retailers embraced the promotion, and as a result consumers bought bundles of cherries," says Pepperl. Two medium-size retailers who used the merchandising units in their stores increased cherry sales and volume by nearly 50 percent vs. the same period the previous year, he adds.

    "Kids and moms are our No. 1 audience," notes Pepperl. "Launching a kids' line that's done through characters that are watched by both the kids and mothers is a home run. You truly get buy-in when the parent is part of the program, too."

    The biggest hurdle to a program like this is execution at store level. "Without execution, there's no program," affirms Pepperl. "However, we plan on making the program easy to roll out, and will make the POS issues less of a problem. Retailers realize that Sesame Street is a huge brand that will bring value and values -- pun intended -- to their sales floor."

    As an example, he points to a floor bin designed to merchandise bagged fruit, featuring Elmo and Cookie Monster peeking out from behind a giant apple. "Retailers need solutions, and this solution also brings the hope of raising consumption of apples at retail."

    Fun snacks

    Pepperl adds that Stemilt will drill down on all relevant category management data to unearth as many facts as possible for future promotions.

    Irwindale, Calif.-based Ready Pac is also thinking big by thinking small. The company has just added two new items to its Cool Cuts line of kid-friendly grab-and-go products. The new items bring the Cool Cuts portfolio from six to eight items. The first is a pack of six individual, two-ounce packages of apple slices, while the second is a variety pack featuring two packages each of two- to 2.25-ounce fresh apples, grapes, and carrots, for a total of six fun snacks per package.

    The convenient packs also contain colorful educational activity cards with games, trivia, and Looney Tunes characters.

    Ready Pac continues to leverage the use of Looney Tunes characters through a licensing arrangement with Warner Bros. "The Looney Tunes characters have tremendous appeal to children, and we're determined to make a positive change in their snacking habits," says Steve Dickstein, Ready Pac's v.p. of marketing. "When it comes to getting a child to eat more fruits and vegetables, it all comes down to great taste, fun, accessibility, and the communication aspects of the products."

    The line also accommodates kids' tendency to eat on the run, with clamshell "cruiser packs" that Dickstein says "not only provide the benefit of better merchandising, but also better protection for the delicate products within, which translates into a better eating experience."

    Like other manufacturers, Dickstein says the biggest hurdle to the current push for kid-friendly produce sits right in the stores. "Many retailers haven't yet made a full commitment," he says. "The future success will really look like a kids' produce section, and when we start to see that happening, we'll see retailers demonstrating with their feet, not just their mouths, that they're fully committed."

    Dickstein cites successful center store market segmentation strategies for the cookie category -- which now features both adult-oriented and kid-specific products -- as a "tell-tale example of what can also be successful in the produce department."

    The key is seeing things from the kids' perspective. "If we can give kids a chance to pick what they like at the adult knee-high level -- which is not necessarily prime real estate from the retail standpoint -- the kid nag factor would certainly work to increase produce sales."

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