Here to Serve

Placing a new emphasis on service in produce departments could help retailers boost fruit and vegetable sales

Last year, celebrity chef Mario Batali teamed up with a small group of entrepreneurs to open Eataly, a new restaurant and fresh food market concept in New York City's Flatiron district. In addition to housemade pasta and full-service meat, seafood, cheese and bakery departments, the new market received rave reviews locally for its new “vegetable butcher” service. It allows shoppers to pick out their fresh produce, talk to a professionally trained chef about recipe ideas, and then have their items cut to order while they continue shopping.

“Talking to a vegetable butcher about what you want to cook and how to cook it is every bit as important as getting your vegetables chopped,” Jennifer Rubell, Eataly's head vegetable butcher, told SN in October.

It's a simple concept that has proven very popular for the time-starved foodies that frequent the upscale grocery. And, while it may not be feasible to offer similar services in most supermarkets, there is ample evidence that improving customer service in produce departments can help build sales of fresh fruits and vegetables.

In-store fresh cut fruit and vegetable operations aren't unheard of, although they've become less common as retailers have looked to commissary operations to satisfy demand for those products. At HEB Central Market, for example, shoppers can watch as the store's partners create prepless produce kits for easy meals, or ask an associate to make them one of the company's 20 signature fresh squeezed juices. Similarly, Lakeland, Fla.-based Publix Super Markets has service counters in all of its produce departments.

“We've been known for more than 80 years for our service to customers, and having the ability to interact and to handle special requests is part of the shopping experience at Publix,” noted Maria Brous, director of media and community relations for the company.

Associates stay busy filling the departments' service cases, which offer more than 20 different salads, ranging from mixed green salads to tropical fruit salads. And, customers can order specialty platters and make simple requests, such as asking an associate to core a pineapple for them.

In many respects, these service areas resemble the full-service butcher, seafood and deli counters that are more commonly seen in supermarkets, and Brous said that they help the produce department's associates establish a similar rapport with customers.

“So many of our customers are weekly or daily shoppers, and they build relationships with our associates — from the pharmacist to the butcher or the deli counter,” she said. “It's part of knowing that customer and knowing what their expectations are or what their needs are. Sometimes it's just a question — not necessarily about a special or customized order, but maybe a question about a product in the produce department or about how to cook something.”

Easy shopper access to expert advice might seem more necessary for seafood and meat departments, where customers may need help with recipe ideas or even basic preparation tips. But, research indicates that lack of knowledge is also a major barrier to increased produce consumption.

In a recent consumer study by the NPD Group and the Produce for Better Health Foundation, moms from the Generation X and Generation Y demographics cited differing family preferences and the need for new preparation ideas as two of the primary challenges they face when trying to get their families to eat more fruits and vegetables. More than a third of respondents also said that fresh fruits and vegetables were expensive to purchase, reiterating a persistent, negative impression that produce departments have had trouble shaking. Forty percent of these young parents also said that they were unsure or needed help to better plan their grocery shopping, and that recipes and online menus that include specific shopping lists are a big help.

Other research has confirmed these results. Last month, SN reported on in-store research conducted by Margaret Condrasky, an associate professor at Clemson University's Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition. Condrasky noted that many of the shoppers she had worked with lack confidence in their cooking skills, which can limit their purchases of fresh produce and prevent them from trying unfamiliar fruits and vegetables.

“So many of the customers really weren't certain how to utilize kale or fresh carrots or canned beans. I think the idea of not being sure what it would taste like, or not feeling secure in their cooking skills was a barrier for some people,” Condrasky said.

In all of these cases, offering shoppers assistance and advice could go a long way toward cultivating store loyalty, encouraging shoppers to eat healthy and increasing visits to the department.