LAS VEGAS — A panel of the nation's leading retail produce managers talked trends and tactics here at the United Fresh Produce Association's annual convention. Moderated by Steve Lutz, executive vice president of The Perishables Group, West Dundee, Ill., the panel consisted of 10 retailers chosen as winners of this year's United Fresh Retail Produce Manager Awards. During an hour-long discussion, the managers talked about how the economy had affected their customers' shopping habits, and how they had responded at the store level.
“There's a lot of customers coming in now who, last year, might have bought high-end items, but this year, they're looking for value,” said Willie Williams Jr., produce manager for a Kroger location in Englewood, Ohio. Many upper-middle-class families have faced job losses during the recession, which has quickly changed their lifestyle and their buying habits, he noted.
Williams said he has adjusted to this shift in customer preferences partly by making adjustments to merchandising allocations. Higher-priced items are getting a little less space, value items are getting a little more. And, those value items are getting more prominent signage.
Panelists agreed, however, that even when higher-priced items are going through a slump, it's bad practice to eliminate them from the product mix, even temporarily.
“It's really crucial that we continue to carry that assortment of fruits and vegetables, even if they're a little pricier,” said John Thut, produce manager for a Bel Air Markets store in Sacramento, Calif. “We're building trust with our customers. We want them to know that they can come to our stores when they have that recipe for that special dinner; they can … get those ingredients fresh and ready to go.”
In a related discussion, one panelist pointed out that higher-priced, less typical items are prime candidates for sampling, particularly if they would otherwise spoil.
“It's important also to sample things that people normally wouldn't try,” said Gary Viall, who manages the produce department at a Hannaford Bros. store in Colonie, N.Y. “You're pretty much going to lose some of that product anyway, so you might as well take advantage of it and sample it, and maybe get a new customer out of it.”
In addition to sampling, recipe cards and meal ideas are another good way to help shoppers feel confident with new foods.
Judy Gauthier, produce manager for Buy-Low Foods in Athabasca, Alberta, Canada, said that she had been putting out a lot of recipes for shoppers lately, and Juronald Williams, produce manager for Ord Community Commissary in Seaside, Calif. noted that a lot of customers are simply not familiar with the huge variety of fruits and vegetables that are currently available.
“They want to know how to prepare these [different items],” he said. “It's very important to educate your customers.”
Lannie Kiser Jr., produce manager for a Brookshire Grocery location in Kaufman, Texas, noted that effective cross-merchandising, suggestive selling and sampling have become key to building sales in a difficult economy.
“Anything you can push on them to sell an extra item, that's the way the economy is,” he said. “If a customer comes in and is not familiar with an item, I'll cut it up and let them try it. Chances are, you're going to sell that product, because it's something new. That's what they want.”
Other panelists agreed.
“You have to do a lot more with cross-merchandising now,” said Shawn Seely produce manager for an Edwardsville, Pa. Price Chopper location. “When you have a value item, you can add some other items to it to help your margin and your sales dollars.”
Organics were one premium category that most panelists seemed very bullish about, despite the recession. They agreed that prices for organic produce are now much closer to conventional produce prices than they once were, that product quality and consistency have improved significantly in recent years, and that core organic shoppers tend to be loyal to the category.
“People now are more conscious about what they're consuming, about what they're eating, and trying to get away from pesticides,” said Williams. “At my store, I used to do about $500 per week in organics, and now I'm doing $8,000 to $9,000 per week. There's a big difference in the past three years. [Those customers] are not looking so much at price anymore. It's ‘either eat healthy now, or pay the pharmacy later.’”
Although he noted that prices may still be a barrier to wider adoption of the organic category, Viall added that organic shoppers will go elsewhere if their selection isn't stocked.
“Your traditional organic customers, they want to come in and find those items every time, or they will go somewhere else,” he said.
However, regardless of how a department's strategy is mapped out, one panelist noted that managers must always ensure that they train their staff well, and communicate their ideas clearly.
“The key, also, is training your people,” Jeff Freeman produce manager for a Save Mart location in Clovis, Calif. “You're not going to be there all day. You're going to have people taking over when you leave … They need to know your ideas and how you like the shop run. And, they have to follow through when you're gone. So, training is essential — for customer service, merchandising, all the way down.”
Freeman, Gauthier, Kiser, Seely, Thut, Viall, Williams and Williams were joined on the panel by Lynette DeClerk, Niemann Foods, Pana, Ill.; and Ryan Lindner, Hy-Vee, Madison, Wis. United Fresh is currently archiving the panel at www.unitedfresh.tv .