The cleanest, most visually striking produce departments, with the freshest, top-quality fruits and vegetables, send a message about the whole store, driving customers into other departments. That’s a given, retailers said. Now, they’re making changes that will keep shoppers in the department a little longer.
They’re installing vertical — sometimes customized — cases and building vertical displays to show off more product and make shopping easier. Meanwhile, chains’ dietitians are communicating health-related information about fresh produce.
Tailoring selections to specific demographics and calling out items’ healthful attributes are endeavors at Montvale, N.J.-based A&P. The chain is doing both in almost all its banners.
“In our Weehawken [N.J.] Pathmark, you’ll find a greater abundance of papaya, yucca, plantain and other fruits and vegetables that resonate with different Hispanic cultures,” Jacqueline Gomes, A&P’s corporate dietitian, told SN.
Gomes also pointed to the chain’s “It’s A Fact” tag program launched in January.
“We thought this would be a great way to educate our consumers on the healthfulness of produce in their diets.”
One such tag set in the middle of an apple display says: “Eating two apples a day can reduce your cholesterol by up to 10%. Crunch away.”
Gomes and A&P’s marketing department work together on the tags.
A similar program at Bashas’, Chandler, Ariz., was developed with the help of the company’s registered dietitian, Barbara Ruhs.
There, in the chain’s produce departments, 23 different large, colorful 8-by-11 signs (left) on produce displays call out healthful properties. One, showing cut pieces of cantaloupe, says, “Protect Your Lungs.” It indicates that the beta carotene in cantaloupe can be beneficial to smokers or anyone who comes contact with smoke. Another sign indicates eating cherries can help provide a good night’s sleep because they contain melatonin, an antioxidant that helps fight insomnia.
At A&P, a coupon program that’s been in place for a while offers a big incentive for customers to buy more fresh produce. Once customers rack up $50 worth of produce purchases, they get a coupon for 20% off their next produce buy. The $50 doesn’t have to be spent all at one time, Gomes explained. It shows up on a customer’s loyalty card when he or she reaches $50 in produce purchases.
Kowalski’s Markets, St. Paul, Minn., has probably the most renowned produce department in its market area, according to local observers. Kowalski’s customers have said they will drive out of their way to go to Kowalski’s to buy fruit.
“In our customer focus groups, they’re always talking about produce,” said Terri Bennis, vice president, fresh food operations for Kowalski’s.
“One woman in one of our focus groups said it didn’t do her any good to get a ‘good deal’ on peaches somewhere else, if her family wouldn’t eat them. She said she did that and had to throw them out.”
Bennis said Kowalski’s looks for the best quality they can get their hands on.
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“We’ll get the biggest, best-tasting cherries around. Same thing with peaches. That’s because we negotiate with growers. We get the prime of the crop. The rest of the prime is exported.”
Bennis explained that she, along with Kowalski’s owners and each store’s produce manager, visits the farm of every new grower that the company takes on.
“We hand-select our grower-partners, and then select the distributor. We’ll tell the distributor, for instance, ‘We want these peaches, will you distribute them for us?’ We work closely with two amazing distributors in Minneapolis. They both know I’m looking for the best there is, and that I also want to try new and unique items they might know about.”
Bennis said price is not really a factor. She tries to get a good deal but quality is paramount. What that means is that often Kowalski’s fruit retails 20% higher than at a big chain store.
Kowalski’s has the advantage of being small, and the company is family owned. Decision-making is quicker, and its size allows Kowalski’s to get closer to its customers, officials have told SN.
For years, many of the decisions made at this independent have been based on customer input gathered at its regular customer focus groups. Each of the company’s nine stores conducts a focus group quarterly.
One of Bennis’ top priorities is to keep things interesting in all the fresh departments. In produce, the company has expanded a cut-fruit program it began a few years ago, and has added some new combinations. Here’s one that’s pretty new and very popular. It’s cut fruit in a container with three sections, strawberries in one, pineapple in one and fresh coconut in the third.
“We call that one pina colada. Those cut fruits continue to grow in sales and so do our organics. Double-digits,” Bennis said.
The latest value-added item made its debut just a few months ago. It’s “The Daily Squeeze,” which can be any fruit freshly squeezed — sometimes pineapple, even mangos, whatever is in season. They’re squeezed and bottled in half pints by one of Kowalski’s primary distributors.
“It was a collaboration. We thought it might work because of the success we’ve had with freshly squeezed orange juice and lemonade,” Bennis said.
And, talk about unusual! Local organic strawberries in September?
“We have a new grower-partner who’s growing them in tunnels. We’ll have organic strawberries July through October.”
Like Kowalski’s, McCaffrey’s, an independent based in Langhorne, Pa., sets out to “wow” its customers in the produce department.
Super-quality fruit and vegetables, and creative, spotlighted displays of items that are in season can’t escape customer’s notice, but produce buyer Tony Mirack said he has to give credit to super cleanliness, too.
Attention to such details as lighting, rotating product and keeping the floor spotless keeps his produce departments shining, Mirack said.
Mirack, as well as others SN talked to, addressed those kinds of details that can sometimes be overlooked, especially if there isn’t an associate in the department at all times.
At McCaffrey’s, there is.
“Our stores are open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. and we have someone in the department the whole time. It’s necessary to check on things constantly.”
Based in the suburbs bordering on rural areas, McCaffrey’s is in a unique position to buy direct from local farmers, and Mirack said customers have told him they want McCaffrey’s to do that.
“We went to a community meeting recently, where there were consumers as well as other retailers, and growers as well. When I came out of there, I had a different idea of what ‘local’ means,” Mirack said.
“To the consumers there, it means one mile or maybe three miles away. I found out that those consumers are interested in the sustainability of their local farms. They want them to be there 10 or 15 years from now. They don’t want a shopping mall to go in there.”
Consumers at the meeting specifically said they wanted local farmers and local retailers to get together.
“We can support those local growers. We don’t want them to go away either,” Mirack said.
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Between quality and variety, quality is No. 1, according to Mirack.
“You need to have the best there is of the essentials like lettuce and broccoli and green beans. The things customers buy every day, and, of course, bananas. They are key. They have to be the right color. Too green, and people will think they’re never going to ripen. Too ripe, and they’re afraid they won’t last.”
But Mirack tries to find a good selection of “sidebar items” — using interesting-looking items like round zucchini to make a standout display. While the company gets most of its produce through its distributor, Mirack makes frequent visits to the wholesale market to see what’s available.
“You never know what you’re going to find,” he said.
Produce sales at McCaffrey’s are doing very well, he said. As a matter of fact, they’ve become increasingly a larger part of total store sales, and that’s without expanding the department.
At K-VA-T-owned Food City in Pikeville, Ky., fresh produce sales have been so good that the department has been expanded by more than half again as part of a remodel.
“We’ve put in new LED lighting and vertical shelving with smaller compartments,” said Lequitte Perry, produce manager, at a nearby Louisa, Ky., Food City store. She was at the Pikeville store helping move product around.
“The new vertical shelving makes it easier to shop. There’re more facings so the product is right in front of you.”
At this store, space to expand the department was deemed more important than location. It was moved from the side aisle to the back of the store to increase its expanse from 84 feet to 132 feet and allow room for more variety.