EXPERT SHARES TIPS ON SELLING PRODUCE

NEW ORLEANS -- Marketing produce effectively need not cost a lot of money or even a lot of time, a consultant said at the Produce Marketing Association's Fresh Summit 2002 last weekend.As an example, William McCurry, chairman, McCurry Associates, Princeton, N.J., cited a retailer who always puts a halved tomato on his displays to show the product's ripeness. Not a new idea, but a new application.Another

NEW ORLEANS -- Marketing produce effectively need not cost a lot of money or even a lot of time, a consultant said at the Produce Marketing Association's Fresh Summit 2002 last weekend.

As an example, William McCurry, chairman, McCurry Associates, Princeton, N.J., cited a retailer who always puts a halved tomato on his displays to show the product's ripeness. Not a new idea, but a new application.

Another retailer, in cooperation with his supplier, gives his customers chances to win a free mushroom cookbook. With all the varieties of mushrooms available these days, consumers don't necessarily know how to use them, McCurry explained.

And, with all the talk about obesity, promoting produce as an alternative to less healthy foods is a natural, he said. Retailers could start a fresh fruit club for kids, or just offer children a free banana or an apple like the bakery used to do with cookies.

"One retailer told me that every time a customer asks for something he doesn't have or he can't do at that time, he writes it down," McCurry said. "He keeps a list of those things, so he can try to do something about it."

"What would you have thought a few years ago if a customer had come in and asked you if you had lettuce already cut up and washed and packed in a bag? What a crazy idea?"

McCurry focuses on store-level marketing because it's the place to reach customers, and allows for creativity.

"It's the customers you already have, the ones who value what you do who should get the most attention. Don't spend a lot of money trying to bring in new customers," he said, noting the fastest way to build sales is to sell more product to existing customers.

Indeed, McCurry suggested 60% of marketing efforts should be directed at current customers, 30% at potential customers and 10% at the general public.

He quoted Jeff Patterson, a corporate level produce executive at Montvale, N.J.-based A&P, who told McCurry he spends a minimum of one day every week working alongside associates in the produce aisle at A&P's stores.

"Advertising might drive customers into the store, but it's your team right in the store that will bring them back," Patterson said, adding training is important.

Regardless of initial cost, training keeps on working. He pointed to successful programs that may have had an expensive launch but have sustained themselves, such as Pathmark's Produce Pete program.

Such programs generate fun, a good way to engage the customer, McCurry said. He cited a produce supplier, Red Zoo, which has created an image with its name and with produce sculptures like a "cuke-a-dile" carved from a cucumber.

"Quality is a given," McCurry said. "Everybody has that, so it's necessary to do something different to catch the customers' attention."

There are all sorts of ideas around that could be used to sell more produce, he said.

Retailers should tie marketing programs to current issues of interest to consumers, such as organic foods and the fight against fat, McCurry said. Pamphlets supplied by organic produce suppliers or trade organizations could be made available in the produce department.

"Another possibility is to cater business meetings in the community, not with doughnuts and croissants, but how about suggesting a fresh fruit and fresh vegetable break with coffee?" McCurry said. "That would fit with people's health consciousness."