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Organic produce helps conventional produce sales: Panelists

Consumers buying organic produce are also heavy buyers of conventional produce, contributing to overall store sales, said panelists at a session held Wednesday at United Fresh 2014 in Chicago.

“The organic consumer is looking for produce choices even if it is not organic,” said Michael Hollister, SVP of sales and marketing for Driscoll’s. “They will be loyal customers as long as you’re offering choices.”

Hollister participated in a panel discussion called "Expanding Organic Sales Impact on Overall Produce Growth." Also on the panel were Laura Batcha, executive director and CEO of the Organic Trade Association, and Todd Linsky, VP of organic sales for Grimmway Farms/Cal-Organic Farms.

Batcha said there had been a perception in the fresh industry that sales of organic produce would have a negative impact on conventional produce sales; if consumers can’t find an organic product, they won’t buy anything.

That has not been the case, said Batcha. A 2014 survey conducted by the Organic Trade Association showed that 91% of U.S. parents will buy the conventional variety if an organic fruit or vegetable is not available.

For most consumers, fruits and vegetables are the gateway to the organic category as a whole, she said. Produce leads the category with 36% of the market, and is the fastest growing category, up by 15% in 2013. The organic industry reached the $35 billion mark in sales in 2013.

“It’s unusual to be the largest part of an industry and to still be growing, ” said Batcha. “The vast majority of U.S. families is aware of and are buying organic. It’s not a niche.”

As the demand for organic produce grows, keeping up with demand becomes more challenging.

“Organic produce is not always available,” said Linsky. Reasons he cited include a limited number of producers and bad weather, such as the drought in California.

“Supply is the hardest part,” agreed Hollister. “You need to find farmers committed to organic. A lot of strategic planning needs to take place. It doesn’t happen overnight.

“But if you don’t have organic products, consumers will go elsewhere to find them,” said Linsky. “What will drive the back to your store?”

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