WASHINGTON -- Identifying and promoting the items consumers want are two of the biggest challenges facing conventional supermarkets merchandising natural and organic produce, according to a top natural products consultant.
The keynote speaker at Natural Products Expo East, Danny Wells, president of Danny Wells & Associates, Martinez, Calif., told SN that a mainstream retailers' revenues are linked to how carefully they select the appropriate natural and organic fruits and vegetables for their stores.
"Sales figures are in direct proportion to the owner's commitment to, and understanding of, the category," he said, noting that owners often need to rely on a committed produce manager to assure natural and organic produce category success.
"If a produce manager doesn't understand the concept of organics, doesn't know how to merchandise organic produce and throws it into a corner, it doesn't last long on the shelf," he said. The poor display resulting from the mishandling and lack of knowledge often makes people perceive the category negatively, he said.
With retail consolidation resulting in store closings and other market shifts, Wells said opportunities exist for conventional supermarkets to hire newly unemployed produce managers well qualified to monitor the organic sector. He noted that many capable produce managers from independent natural food stores are often looking to grow professionally by seeking out employment with a large chain. Conversely, many produce staffers in conventional formats, possessing a great interest in organics, will often eventually gravitate toward the more hospitable environment of natural food stores.
"It's not a one-way street," Wells said, alluding to the fact there's a lot of head hunting for produce managers committed to organics.
But no matter who's at the helm overseeing the produce, Wells told SN, category success is generally dependent on the "passion of the retailer" for that category.
"If the owners have passion, they can guide and teach the produce manager the importance of product vibrancy and freshness," he said. "Owners can give produce managers books, or even information on organic gardening to help his employee understand the principles. Commitment comes through education."
Wells also emphasized the importance of patience, as retailers transition into organics.
"There will be slower sales during the time it takes to educate consumers," he said. "Produce managers need to identify the correct product mix and hang in there until products reach a certain velocity and you start seeing significant return."
But even when a conventional supermarket has the advantage of owner and produce manager both heavily invested in the outcome of their organic line, one dilemma still remains, Wells said. Organic produce revenues typically represent only 1% of total produce sales.
Still, many shoppers who buy organic produce are willing to pay extra for the health benefits associated with the line, he said.
"Even if there's tremendous acceptance of the organic movement at the mainstream store level, it's not worth jumping in unless they're very committed," he said, noting retailers must be careful not to sacrifice their conventional produce selections.