CONVENIENT FRUITS AND VEGETABLES ARE HERE TO STAY

A catchy brand name, halo of health and convenience. Those seem to be the essential ingredients for the new stars of the produce department.The newcomers bear little resemblance to the anonymous heads of lettuce, ears of corn, and other fruits and vegetables sold in bulk displays in produce departments of the past. Though commodities continue to be mainstays, the new packaged and branded products

A catchy brand name, halo of health and convenience. Those seem to be the essential ingredients for the new stars of the produce department.

The newcomers bear little resemblance to the anonymous heads of lettuce, ears of corn, and other fruits and vegetables sold in bulk displays in produce departments of the past. Though commodities continue to be mainstays, the new packaged and branded products are gaining precious real estate in crowded departments.

The healthy refrigerated juice category typifies this trend. Here's an example of a young category that's benefited from aggressive marketing on the supplier's side. In the past, consumers knew intuitively that eating fruits and vegetables was good for them. Today, consumers learn from sophisticated and pervasive advertising that these juices deliver antioxidants and other healthy stuff. Brand marketers pull out all the stops to convey the good-for-you message about their products. The marketing is paying off. While sales of traditional fruit juices in dairy cases are down in the dumps, these new juices are experiencing robust growth. Sales in the "refrigerated all other juices" category increased more than 200% in the year that ended Sept. 5, according to Information Resources Inc., Chicago.

The juices come in unique bottles, smaller sizes and fresh, appealing flavors. In addition, they sell at higher retail prices than conventional drinks. Mainstream retailers are making space for these products in the produce departments -- not the traditional location for chilled juices. Then again, there's nothing typical about these beverages. I confess I've never eaten a pomegranate, let alone drunk the juice, but people tell me it's delicious. Product marketers call it "wonderful." The fascinating story behind the rapid rise of these drinks starts on Page 59.

If healthy juices are the up-and-coming opening acts, then bagged salads are full-fledged rock stars. Back in the 1990s, I remember hearing my friend and co-worker extol the virtues of salad: the kind that came in a plastic bag, already chopped and washed. Buying salad in a bag seemed like a goofy idea then. I wondered, "Who's going to buy these salads?" Well, as it turns out, my friend was ahead of her time. Over the course of a few years, branded, bagged salads have evolved into a $2.6 billion-a-year business. What's changing is the sheer number of varieties and the packaging. The latest crop of salads comes in clear, clamshell packages. The only hard part about making salad today is deciding which one of the many premixed, prewashed and prepackaged varieties to pick up at the supermarket. It's a toss-up for consumers.

In some respects, selling these products is the easy part. Retailers increasingly count on vendors to take on the responsibility of educating consumers on the merits of the new items. Meanwhile, vendors no doubt feel pressured to innovate or die. That means we'll see more branded items that deliver convenience and health in nice, tidy packages. The hard part for retailers will be achieving the right balance of new products and commodity-style items to keep all their shoppers happy. It could be a toss-up.