Better communication along the supply chain, more efficient pallet loading, easier-to-lift shipping boxes, eye-catching consumer packages, more product information from farther down the line and more full-time, frontline help.
Those are some of the things retailers and others said could give total produce sales a hefty push, but at least one retailer placed the responsibility for selling more produce squarely at the feet of the retailer.
“I feel strongly that at this point the primary job of selling more produce belongs to the retailer. I can say that because I'm a retailer myself,” said Tony Mirack, produce merchandiser at three-unit, upscale independent McCaffrey's, Langhorne, Pa.
He said the retail store, in general, is the weakest link these days.
“The whole produce industry has made excellent strides in a whole lot of areas,” Mirack added. “Communication gaps have been closing up all along the way. With global marketing, there's wonderful produce available 52 weeks of the year. And growers are starting to grow products that have flavor. We even have a sub-acid peach now. No acid, it's all sugar.”
Mirack said that over the past 15 years, he has seen problems that used to crop up along the supply chain disappear.
“The growers, shippers, wholesalers all have improved things. In fact, we have what we need to do a good job. Now it's us. The retailers are where the rubber meets the road.”
Others in the industry agree.
“Remember that a very important part of the supply chain lies right in the store,” said Jack Allen, professor emeritus, food marketing, at Michigan State University.
Allen, who has worked with retailers, growers and others in the industry for years, told SN he believes the retailer has to take most of the responsibility.
Growers and shippers are increasingly disseminating more product information, Allen emphasized. “They're telling the product's story and where it came from. Now it's the retailer's responsibility to convey that information to the consumer.”
Frequent huddles, one-on-one exchanges and taste-testing can help stir up excitement in the produce department, said consultant and former retailer Harold Lloyd, president, Harold Lloyd Presents, Virginia Beach, Va.
“The good stores do it well. I believe you can get store managers and department managers together and create excitement that will drive sales,” Lloyd said.
Lloyd also contends that growers and shippers and others in the supply line have listened over the years and have made many changes that make the retail associate's work easier. At least, less physically challenging.
“For instance, there's one-step merchandising, from pallet to display for some items, and master packs are smaller.”
Apples are shipped now in 28-pound boxes instead of 40-pound boxes. And cantaloupes are shipped in boxes half the weight of those shipped 12 years ago, Lloyd said.
Long range, Lloyd envisions a produce certification program that would entice more young people to make a career in the category. “Standardized learning and testing would work,” he said. “Maybe three levels — product knowledge, people skills and sales building.”
Other retailers, though they give credit to improvements along the supply chain, told SN there are gaps in communication that still bother them.
One produce director at an East Coast chain told SN he thinks his vendors could do a better job of informing him about what's new on the market.
“The worst thing for me is to walk into a competitor's produce department and see something I didn't know existed,” he said. “Just last week, I saw a nicely packaged snack pack in a Kroger that I should have known about. I want to be first with things.”
Out in Arizona, Leticia Saldivar, farm market manager at a Tucson unit of AJ's, an 11-unit division of Bashas', based in Chandler, said she looks for “cute factor” packaging, because it always works to sell more product.
“An example is little apples, they're called Lady Apples,” Saldivar said.
They themselves are cute, at a size no bigger than a quarter or half dollar, but bagged in one-pound bags, they become even more salable, according to Saldivar.
“In bulk, I'll sell a case a week at this store, but in those little bags, I'll sell 10 times as many.”
While she's always looking for innovative packaging, particularly that will attract the attention of kids — and their Moms — Saldivar said growers and packers for the most part are doing a good job of times as many.”
While she's always looking for innovative packaging, particularly that will attract the attention of kids — and their Moms — Saldivar said growers and packers for the most part are doing a good job of master packaging to protect the product.
Then, the consumer package is crucial to a product's success, Saldivar said.
“Packaging and labeling can make or break you.”
She described an unusual product her customers like: a Fuji or Gala apple that's been soaked in a bath of Concord grape juice. They're packed protectively in a four-pocket clamshell, and the supplier has provided information.
“It's part of my job to learn about my product and share that knowledge with my customers,” Saldivar said.
Some suppliers offer tons of information and others don't, retailers told SN.
“PomWonderful, for instance, does a good job — even shows you how to get the seeds out of a pomegranate,” said Chris Hummer, produce manager at Day's Market, Heber City, Utah.
But often, a new variety is shipped without the requisite info to share with customers, Hummer and his colleague Frank Zupo told SN.
“But it's not up to the broker or grower to sell it for us. We need the information, but our interaction with customers is what sells the item,” Hummer said.
One problem at Day's seems to be bred of poor communication or lack of understanding at the warehouse.
Hummer and Zupo said they sometimes lose product to shrink because of the way it was loaded onto the pallet. Potatoes stacked on top of mushrooms, for instance.
Suppliers, too, Hummer said, don't adequately protect cauliflower, leaving the top of the box open. But all in all, Hummer and Zupo, like other retailers SN talked to, said the picture up and down the supply chain has changed immensely for the better over the past 10 or 12 years.