UNITED PRODUCE EXPO

CHICAGO - Retail produce managers shed light on consumer preferences during a wide-ranging panel discussion here at the Produce Expo & Conference, held in conjunction with the Food Marketing Institute show.Naturally, what shoppers like and dislike varies a lot. For example, fresh produce sold in packages is not universally loved, the retailers pointed out."The vast majority of consumers are not going

CHICAGO - Retail produce managers shed light on consumer preferences during a wide-ranging panel discussion here at the Produce Expo & Conference, held in conjunction with the Food Marketing Institute show.

Naturally, what shoppers like and dislike varies a lot. For example, fresh produce sold in packages is not universally loved, the retailers pointed out.

"The vast majority of consumers are not going to buy packaged products," said Jeff Thill, a store manager at a Hy-Vee, based in West Des Moines, Iowa.

Commenting on packaging, another manager noted, "Some people like it, some people don't."

"Bagged salads sell a lot better than head lettuce," said David Thompson, a produce manager with Kroger Co., Cincinnati.

In fact, the 10 retailers on the panel agreed packaged salads are a destination category for produce departments, while cut-fruit products are also seeing strong growth.

Retailers can create their own destinations by promoting popular products that are in season. For example, retailers said they aggressively promote strawberries. Associates at Clemens Family Markets even merchandise strawberries in the store bakeries, said George Brundage, a produce manager at Clemens, based in Kulpsville, Pa.

When it comes to successful promotions, size and location matter. Big banners are effective. To be successful, product displays also must be set up in high-traffic areas of the store, the retailers said.

"It's got to have eye appeal," said Mike Dickerson, a produce manager at a Winn-Dixie store, based in Jacksonville, Fla.

Sometimes retailers have nothing to do with creating hot products. Media coverage has the power to turn an obscure product into an overnight sensation.

"There might be a recipe [on the Food Network], and people will come in asking for something we've never heard of," said Todd Haubrich, a manager at Roger & Marv's/Spiegelhoff's, Kenosha, Wis.

As for where the produce comes from, most consumers don't care about country-of-origin, unless they hear about food safety problems in a particular country, Thill noted.

When asked about their interest in new products, the retailers said they're willing to promote new items, but they need help from vendors.

Retailers cannot single-handedly execute a rollout, Thill said.

"We need ad support and POS [materials]," he said.

Thill singled out POM Wonderful as an example of a company that worked hard to bring a new line of premium healthy juices to market.

Other produce managers who spoke on the panel were Dee Mabry, with Brookshire Grocery, Tyler, Texas; Joe Freed, with Safeway, Pleasanton, Calif.; Kenny Dale, with Food Lion, Salisbury, N.C.; Doyle Robinson, with Food City K-VA-T, Abingdon, Va.; and Laraine Ramirez, with Vons, a division of Safeway.

Moderated by Steve Lutz, executive vice president of the Perishables Group, the panel was organized by the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association, as part of its produce show at FMI.