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Appearance, Demos Influence Produce Purchases

ATLANTA — Both shoppers and retail executives lent their voices on the produce shopping experience in two back-to-back panels at the Produce Marketing Association's Fresh Summit International Convention and Exposition here this month.

Consumer panel moderator Steve Lutz, executive vice president, Perishables Group, East Wenatchee, Wash., asked if the panelists were buying more or less produce than a year ago, several panelists said that they were buying more — including experimenting with different vegetables for their kids, trying to eat raw foods, and hoping to make baby food.

In choosing fruits and vegetables, the panel made clear that appearance is still king.

Only three of the 10 shoppers agreed that the majority of their purchases were dictated by a list. Even those shoppers who came in with a recipe, meal idea or list said that they might make substitutions or buy additional items based on the look of the produce, sales or positioning in the store.

Although the panelists shopped with their eyes, many said they are sometimes disappointed with produce when actually eating it.

Several of these shoppers' concerns were addressed by retailers during the following panel, which was moderated by Anthony Barbieri, PMA's vice president, sales and business development.

Responding to a question about experience and taste driving repeat purchases, Greg Calistro, director of produce and floral for Save Mart Supermarkets, Modesto, Calif., referred to the shopper panel's dissatisfaction with purchases when they got home, saying this showed the importance of taste.

Calistro said that Save Mart has an in-house sampling program and not only encourages produce managers to sample products, but to talk about the product and its health benefits and offer recipes.

Michael O'Brien, vice president of produce, Schnuck Markets, St. Louis, also spoke on the importance of demos to promote taste, especially for shoppers who hadn't tried certain products before.

“101: We need to do more demos in our stores and in our departments,” he said. “We used to do a lot of those. We don't do enough any more. We're starting to do more of them.”

The demoing advice rings true with the comments from the consumer panel where two panelists noted they liked specific kinds of apples, and one panelist said her kids like to taste the products when they go shopping with her. A demo could introduce these shoppers to new varieties.

O'Brien said Schnucks is demoing via Schnucks Cooks — a program in 40 stores where shoppers can get meal ideas, taste samples from new recipes and buy the products all in one kiosk. Featured items always receive a lift in sales, O'Brien said earlier in the panel.

To promote new products, Schnucks bought and trained produce managers with refractometers, a device that measures sugar content. The managers use the device to help find products to personally recommend to customers on a “My Pick” sign in the produce department.

“The customer will buy it if you're giving it your personal endorsement, and that helps to sell more produce, too,” O'Brien said.

Michael Agostini, senior director, produce, Wal-Mart Stores, Bentonville, Ark., commended the taste-focus direction the industry as whole has been taking — as opposed to the prior focus on shipping durability — and said they need to continue the work in that direction.

Agostini said he often receives shopper questions on preparation when he's in the store, such as, “This beautiful bunch of beets, what do I do with it? I've never had a beet before.”

Wal-Mart is working on addressing these kinds of questions with a new sign kit for use in the produce department.

Four message fields, limited to 48 characters each, will be added to item descriptions. “One is for a health message, one is a flavor message, one is how do you choose it and the fourth one is how to use it or how to prepare it,” Agostini said.

The retailers are also promoting fruits and vegetables to children.

In addition to encouraging store tours with classes, Save Mart instituted a new “Story Time” in the produce department on Saturdays that has been slowly gaining popularity, according to Calistro. In the program, an associate reads to the kids and then talks to them fruits and vegetables, giving participants a produce item to take home as well information about the item. Advertised in print ads, Story Time is offered usually in the third quarter.