With more products to choose from than ever these days, supermarket produce-department executives probably don't know whether to laugh or cry.
An explosion of variety has helped maintain produce's claim as one of the supermarket's most dynamic and profitable departments. At the same time, however, it's also made the retail produce executive's job one of the more challenging -- and at times frustrating -- in the store.
Quite simply, the roster of products vying for a spot in the produce section is growing faster than the amount of store real estate allocated to produce, produce executives told SN. While fruits and vegetables may not be alone among store departments in that respect, issues of perishability, seasonality, consumer expectations and store demographics complicate the challenge of fitting more products into a limited space.
"All of the variety is great for the consumer but handling it can be difficult for the retailer," said Ed Odron, a former retail produce executive who now operates Produce Marketing & Consulting, Stockton, Calif. "While many of us have prototype stores where more space is being allocated to produce, a lot are working with great stores in great locations [that] only have, say, 30,000 square feet. That's when it becomes a real challenge to work all of these products in."
Even megastores with scads of space to devote to produce are still scrambling to find ways to accommodate the growing variety of produce and produce-related items in the department. A proliferation of more varieties within mainstream categories like apples and citrus -- not to mention the growth of segments such as organically grown, value-added and imported produce, and even soy-based vegetarian products, fresh juices and non-fresh produce companion items -- is turning even the largest of departments into a claustrophobic's nightmare.
"Our departments have been growing anywhere from 10% to 25% annually, but the SKU count is growing faster than that as a wider assortment of products become available," lamented Bruce Peterson, vice president of perishables for Wal-Mart Supercenters, Bentonville, Ark.
One way stores are approaching the variety challenge is to look for new ways to work within the space limitations of their departments. That job is becoming easier thanks to development of merchandising fixtures that allow stores to build their product displays differently and use limited horizontal space more effectively.
"Space utilization has improved dramatically," agreed Bruce Knobeloch, director of produce for Schnuck Markets, St. Louis. "There's a lot more vertical merchandising of products than in the past. That's being made possible by the development of new multiple-deck cases that allow you to dense up on the space you have."
Enhanced vertical merchandising has taken hold in many sections of the department, but one of the most visible has been in the booming packaged-salad area, where the stockkeeping unit explosion is clearly evident. Many progressive retailers have opted for wall display fixtures for their salads in an area separate from the traditional lettuce and leafy greens refrigerated section. The wall units use space more efficiently and deliver better temperature control than stacking products on a horizontal display case.
Proper refrigeration of products is a key part of the challenge in building any kind of fixture that maximizes limited display space, Odron said.
"Today, when retailers are faced with making room for more items they can't just add 24 feet of wet rack," he said. "They have to try to take their existing equipment and try to add to it.
"Shelving is shelving for products like canned goods, but the challenge for produce is that many of the fixtures need to allow for refrigeration, which can be more difficult to attain," he added. "Fixture manufacturers have done a good job of designing cases that are flexible and maintain the proper temperatures. Many stores are putting in cases where a range of temperatures can be achieved to allow for different products to be merchandised, and that also allow for added shelving."
The specialty-produce area of the department is one location where shelf inserts have been put to good use, precisely because they can protect the integrity of the items, due to their ability to better circulate refrigerated air, executives told SN. The shelving is also important because it can merchandise more of these products, which is important, because the appeal of specialty produce has long since expanded beyond the ethnic groups that have traditionally used them, to mainstream consumers.
The shelves also help with labor considerations, since they are designed so that department associates can properly display and care for the goods, Peterson said.
"If you're going to handle these ethnic specialty items today you're going to have to present them in the best possible condition, because the people who are buying them know what they're supposed to look and taste like," he said.
Clark Wood, corporate produce specialist with Associated Food Stores, Salt Lake City, said that new shelving that's available has opened up a host of new merchandising opportunities for the company's stores.
"When you go with these five-deck cases for your value-added product line, you can go from having just a 12-foot case to a 60-foot one that you can start having some fun with," he said.
Better space use, however, is only one element of dealing with the SKU explosion in the produce department. Equally important, but in some ways more difficult, is the process of choosing which products to handle. That decision can be influenced by everything from the time of the year to product availability to where the store is located.
"It's always been a challenge to identify the proper mix of products for stores," Knobeloch said. "But while there are more items available now there's also better data that can be analyzed to help you make your decisions."
Indeed, a category-management approach that relies heavily on product-movement data is becoming an essential tool in helping stores juggle the myriad produce varieties arriving on the market. As more products compete for facings in the department, more stores are turning to objective data to help them decide which products to offer and, more than ever, which to delete.
"A lot more research has to go into the decision-making process," Odron said. "You can't just go on a gut feel as much anymore; you have to use data. The category management process is key."
Product-movement data has especially proven its worth as chains get larger and larger, covering whole regions of the country. Using the information, corporate buyers now purchasing huge volumes can get a better handle as to what is selling in various neighborhood stores. After all, a product mix that works in one store may fall flat in a unit only a couple of miles away due to a different customer profile. The breadth of the selection in produce categories such as organic, value-added and specialty is especially affected by store demographics.
"The ongoing success of any produce department or any store, for that matter, is going to be linked more and more to their ability to tailor their product assortment to their community," Peterson said.
Even with an ability to use purchase data to more sharply focus a store's offerings, the consumer still equates expansive variety with store quality, said industry observers. And because produce is usually the lead-off department in the fresh power aisle, stores are forced to boost their produce item count anyway.
Jim Corrigan, president of Carrot Top Inc., a single-unit, produce-oriented supermarket in Northbrook, Ill., said consumers are looking for excitement and variety in the produce department more than ever. While hard data can help narrow down the selection of items to handle, it can't totally replace the benefits brought by a little bit of merchandising improvisation.
"With produce seasonality not as clear-cut as before, and more products available from all over, we're able to react a lot more quickly in our merchandising [strategies]," Corrigan said. "If you're just following the old standards about what to handle on a seasonal basis you're not going to get as much of a response from the consumer. People do want certain things at certain times, but they also want to see what else you can throw into the mix. You have to go for a bit of the theater factor."
Beyond consumer demand, Associated's Wood said, keeping the produce item count manageable is further complicated by the fact that today's produce shopper equates number with quality.
"Variety is a perceptive sort of thing," Wood said. "If someone comes into a store's produce department these days and doesn't see a good mix of product, that can lead to a perception of lower quality. Consumers are increasingly judging a store by the variety of produce it carries."
But with supermarket executives continuing to judge their store departments on how well they can efficiently and profitably tailor the right mix of products to their stores, the challenge produce merchandisers face in deciding which products to handle probably will get harder before it gets easier.
"Five years ago I would have predicted that produce variety would have leveled off by now," Odron said. "But it seems like suppliers just keep adding and adding products to the mix. There's only so much product the consumer can consume, but I'm not sure if adding more square footage to the produce department is the answer. Some of them are too big now."