STACKING UP

Produce department merchandising has always relied on the ebb and flow of the different seasons, and retailers have become adept at using the various colors and shapes of each to generate sales. Such traditional methods may no longer be enough, however. Today's consumer demands year-round supplies, favors specialty, organic and local items, and desires more product information. The changes have retailers

Produce department merchandising has always relied on the ebb and flow of the different seasons, and retailers have become adept at using the various colors and shapes of each to generate sales.

Such traditional methods may no longer be enough, however. Today's consumer demands year-round supplies, favors specialty, organic and local items, and desires more product information. The changes have retailers working to establish a deeper connection with their shoppers.

“Merchandising, in our mind, isn't just about putting the reds next to the yellows next to the greens,” said Lorna Christie, senior vice president of industry products and services, Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del. “We believe that the retailers who are really, really successful have kind of evolved the definition of merchandising in making it an interactive experience that appeals to not only the senses, but to the emotional need for a connection with their food. It's about the industry evolving past selling produce and understanding marketing principles, consumer needs and adopting their merchandising strategies to meet those needs.”

The most successful programs appeal to the senses while also satisfying consumer demand for variety and information, she explained.

“You'll see that there's not a lot of variation [in merchandising trends] from year to year. What you have are market influencers introducing a new strategy and seeing it trickle down to different areas of the industry.”

“It's the wagon carts, the wagon display cases — you see farmers' pictures, you get that sense of fresh corn being piled up in total disarray as opposed to neatly arranged rows,” Christie said. “So, what you're seeing there is a definite trend to appeal to that very powerful movement.”

The movement has become so pronounced, Christie noted, that some of PMA's grower-members have been looking for regional growing areas outside of their traditional home bases, in an attempt to tap into the trend.

But while most retailers have jumped on the local foods bandwagon to some extent, many may still need to work on communicating that message to their shoppers.

“Some [retailers], I think, do a much better job of communicating local origin,” said Jim Wisner, president of Wisner Marketing Group, Libertyville, Ill. Citing H.E. Butt Grocery Co. as an example, Wisner noted that one of the best approaches to the trend involves emphasizing local pride. “It makes it a little more special, or gets consumers thinking they're helping people locally when they buy it,” he said.

That requires communicating a lot of information about how, where and from whom those products are sourced, and consumers want more information than ever.

“The reaction certainly from the retailers that I talk to, they're seeing more requests for information,” Wisner said. “We just did some research, and one of the pieces of feedback we got back from produce managers was that just the number of new items and varieties of products that customers come in and ask for has really increased quite a bit. So having some resource there is helpful.”

Seattle-based PCC Natural Markets is committed to local and organic foods, and to emphasize those commitments, the company has a detailed signage program set up for its produce departments.

“We've always shown country of origin, and for domestic produce we show state and often farm of origin on our individual item signs, and we have large overhead signs with photos of the farmers we source from locally,” said PCC spokeswoman Diana Crane.

“Close relationships with our local producers set us apart from many competitors; our shoppers like knowing about those relationships — that many of their fruits and vegetables didn't travel for miles to get here, and that their food dollars are, in part, supporting the local economy.”

PCC also has brief “but compelling” descriptions on its individual item signs, Crane said. For example, the sign for their organic raspberries says, “Sweet with a subtly tart overtone and almost melt-in-your-mouth texture. Ripe and ready to serve. Ideal for freezing.”

FACE TO FACE

Produce sales associates can also help communicate these messages to shoppers, but according to recent research from PMA, most retailers aren't taking advantage of their front-line employees in this regard. In a recent PMA survey, consumers were asked, “How much interaction do you have with produce staff?” Sixty-three percent said little to no interaction; 45% said they have no interaction at all; and 18% said “a little.”

“The research went on to indicate that there's a bottom-line implication for that,” said Julia Stewart, spokeswoman for the PMA. “The next question we asked was, ‘When you do have an interaction with a staff person, are you more likely to purchase fruits or vegetables?’ Forty-two percent said either much more or somewhat more likely, 25% said much more and 17% said somewhat. So there's another opportunity for a touch point in that whole relationship with the consumer.”

Produce sampling is one of the best ways to establish that connection, Christie noted. Sampling is a part of a merchandising strategy in which retailers are helping the consumers not only select a food, and see and experience what the food tastes like, but also offering information on how they can integrate it into a recipe. One recent innovation that offers shoppers a continuous opportunity to interact with staff is salad bars positioned in or near produce departments, she said.

“You have retailers who are taking it one step further, with salad bars in or near their produce departments that not only are just offering the self-serve salads, but actually manned salad bars where consumers can select their ingredients and you have someone there who chops it for them, and then [they] select your dressing as well,” Christie said.

“Imagine the experience when you've got a department that's adopted that interactive merchandising strategy. Not only are you assaulted by the wonderful colors that the produce has to offer, you've got a sampling station over there, you can hear it being cut, you can taste it, you can smell it, and you've got a cooking station over here that shows you how to use it in a recipe, and a chopped salad bar in the corner that gives you that interactive experience. That to me is the ideal merchandising strategy — appealing to all these senses, as well as the need for a connection.”

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

Of course, employee interaction, sampling programs and quality signage are of little use if a produce department does not look appealing on its own. And retailers note that the basics of produce merchandising are evolving as well, in response to consumer demand for more variety, as well as increased concerns about food safety.

Bloom, Salisbury, N.C., keeps the importance of creating a sensory experience for its customers in the produce department top of mind, according to Thomas Young, produce and floral merchandising manager of the Food Lion subsidiary.

“With a name like Bloom, how could we not have fun delivering a surprisingly tantalizing sensory experience?” Young told SN.

“As you enter our produce department, we have gentle track lighting, and a waterfall effect supported by lights and sound. Our cut-fruit category is represented with a kaleidoscope of color displayed in clear clamshell bowls.”

“A point of difference in any produce department is the care and handling of green vegetables,” Young added.

“From a distance of 10 feet away, you can ‘see’ the freshness of properly merchandised wet, green vegetables which have been properly crisped prior to being set on display.”

Clamshells are also growing in popularity in produce departments because of their ability to protect produce, prolong freshness and highlight special products, industry experts said.

“We've moved to using a lot of clamshells. Strawberries, grapes, premium cherries, Rainier cherries — the clamshells keep them fresher longer, and we've had a great, great guest response,” said Darbel Kirby, director of produce at United Supermarkets, Lubbock, Texas.

United has also been using clamshells for its organic grapes and summer figs, among other products, which has helped reduce shrink on those items, Kirby added.

PMA has also seen a growth in the use of clamshells in produce merchandising.

“Food safety and security has generated a great deal more interest in [produce] packaging,” Christie said. Tamper resistance is one component of that interest, but packaging also lends itself to value-added tie-ins, such as condiments, dips or salad dressing packets, she added.

However, according to PMA research on packaging, shoppers do prefer to have a variety of options when they shop a produce department.

“Sometimes they like bulk, sometimes they like packages; the thing about packages is that they're stackable and they protect the food better than just a poly bag would, things like that,” Stewart said. “I think what our packaging research communicates to the retailer is, pack a variety. Include bulk products, include bags and include clamshells, because there is a customer for every one of those.”

United is also using shelving cases to add some more produce variety, along with some wicker baskets. Wicker baskets help control product and add more variety in a smaller area.

One section with wicker baskets can hold 12 or more items, Kirby said.

Wicker also adds to the decor of the store, according to Michelle Owens, spokeswoman for United.

“It adds that market feel that especially goes along with our Market Street stores,” she said.

“Tomatoes we moved to a multi-deck set, where we can set the temperature at 60 degrees and we can add more tomato variety in one section — and, of course, we've expanded our organics like everybody and are putting organic fruit and vegetables on a table for merchandising purposes,” Owens said.

United has also taken steps to make organics more accessible and centrally located, rather than segregating the products to a separate corner of their produce departments, so that “they're more prominent within the everyday items,” Kirby said.

Organic and local produce have become such mainstream trends that many retailers are taking similar steps to integrate these items into their regular produce sections.

Christie said she believes that consumers who prefer these items prefer an integrated merchandising layout.

“I think it takes center stage,” she said. “You go into some of the stores and you see the huge displays of corn piled onto the tables. You have big chalkboards that say, ‘Next delivery at 3 o'clock.’ So actually, the smart retailers are kind of making it a fundamental part. It's kind of the go-to point in a produce department, because it appeals to consumers so much.”