SHOPPERS SEEK CONVENIENCE IN FRESH PRODUCE

NEW YORK - Customers are always looking for food that's easy to prepare and enjoy, and that desire for convenience can be seen in the new products hitting the fresh produce departments.Pre-packaged bowl salads containing meat are strong sellers at Stop & Shop Supermarkets, Quincy, Mass. A complete meal all in one bowl, without even a dish to wash, appeals to shoppers who are strapped for time."We

NEW YORK - Customers are always looking for food that's easy to prepare and enjoy, and that desire for convenience can be seen in the new products hitting the fresh produce departments.

Pre-packaged bowl salads containing meat are strong sellers at Stop & Shop Supermarkets, Quincy, Mass. A complete meal all in one bowl, without even a dish to wash, appeals to shoppers who are strapped for time.

"We offer seven varieties of those under our private-label brand," said Domenic D'Antuono, vice president of produce for the 385-unit Stop & Shop chain. "We'd like to see more of the convenience vegetables, like pre-packaged vegetables in their own microwavable containers. Items that are heat-and-eat, like glazed carrots or broccoli with cheese."

At the same time, shoppers want their favorite fruits and vegetables year round. Another produce director, at a large, mid-Atlantic chain, said he would rather have fresh blueberries in November than a larger selection of value-added items.

"We have them and that's good, but the biggest factor driving produce is not a particular product or new products, but opening the windows of availability wider," said the produce director, who requested anonymity.

"I'd like to have more continuity. When my customers want a ripe peach or avocado, I want to have them. It's been done with clementines. It used to be you only got them in winter, from Spain. Now, they're coming in from Chile and South Africa in the summer. That is good. Same thing with blueberries. Now, they're coming from below the equator right through the fall."

He said he's looking forward to the day when there's so much global sourcing at affordable prices that he can offer more of the fruits and vegetables that are still seasonal on a more regular basis, year round or nearly so.

Likewise, the produce director at Kowalski's Markets, St. Paul, Minn., said an adequate supply of quality baby vegetables and organic produce are at the top of his wish list.

"Our supply is limited, at least of high-quality baby vegetables," said Dean Balzum, Kowalski's produce director. "We want to see more of the zucchinis and cucumbers. I know I can get them from the West Coast, but I wish I could get them closer by, so they're fresher."

Balzum said it's also a challenge to obtain an adequate assortment of popular organic items.

"We're really focusing on organics," Balzum said. "I know with more people getting into that organic niche, even Wal-Mart, the supply isn't reliable. We know we'll have to pay more, which is OK, but the problem is dedicating space for a product and then it doesn't come. We have to fill that gap."

Balzum alluded to the convenience and the salability of a huge display of fresh-cut fruits and some vegetables that Kowalski's began featuring last year.

"That's still doing very well for us," Balzum said. "We've even added half a dozen new items. Some tropical combinations, mangos, papayas, kiwis."

Kowalski's has contracted with a local company to supply all stores with the cut-and-packed fruit and the arrangement is absolutely critical, Balzum said. Cut fruit, convenient as it is, sometimes does not meet quality standards when it has to travel far. Kowalski's basically eliminated the problem by partnering with a nearby supplier to make daily deliveries to its 10 stores, all in the same general area surrounding the Twin Cities.

"The only quality issue we had was with melons this summer and we know that was the heat, the very high heat, in California."

Some of the top sellers in the produce departments over the last year were items such as bottled, natural juices and nuts.

"Pom Wonderful's pomegranate juices and teas and the Bolthouse juices, too, have done very well," said Stop & Shop's D'Antuono.

Similarly, Darvel Kirby, the produce director at 48-unit United Supermarkets, Lubbock, Texas, said Naked and Bolthouse natural juices are boosting sales in the produce aisles.

"So are fresh, shelled nuts and mixes, which are new to us," Kirby added.

The natural juice category is exploding and continues to expand, according to SN's sources.

"There are new players, new brands, new varieties, like watermelon and blueberry. Some of them are coming in from other countries now," said Dick Spezzano, president, Spezzano Consulting, Monrovia, Calif.

"I think we'll see more unusual items as new markets open up around the world. Lichee nuts for one thing, but dragon fruit, and probably more exotic things."

A veteran of supermarket retailing, Spezzano told SN what he would like to add to produce assortments now.

"More vitamin-enriched vegetables," he said. "For instance, carrots with triple the beta carotine they have now or more vitamin C in other vegetables. It can be done in the growing process."

But in the long run, Spezzano agreed with retailers who said the best thing that could happen to their produce departments is a year-round supply of the most popular produce items.

"I'd want continuity, more to display, more promotions, more products I can offer to the consumer more weeks out of the year," Spezzano said.

At the same time, anything that adds convenience, variety or a new punch of flavor continues to give produce departments a boost, said consultant Ray Klocke, president of The Klocke Advantage, Scottsdale, Ariz., and a veteran of the retail produce world.

Sliced potatoes and onions will probably hit stores next, and become widely available, he said.

Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, Tesco plans to begin selling square watermelons next month, officials said. According to United Press International, Tesco said the melons will retail for $9. The square fruit has been marketed in Japan for the past five years, at much higher retail prices, according to the UPI story. The melons, whose shape makes them more easily stacked and stored, are grown in Brazil where farmers place boxes around them to achieve a squared-off and uniform shape as they develop.

Del Monte Fresh Foods is marketing a Fruitini Squeezie, also in the U.K. The squeezie is made entirely of fruit pulp with a little juice.

Whether the new products will be distributed in U.S. stores remains to be seen.