Fruit baskets are the quintessential way to tie fresh produce to the holidays -- but some buyers and merchandisers are finding other ways to celebrate the holidays, and better their traditional sales.
Merchandisers interviewed by SN said they are focusing on products like garlic strings and gift boxes of fruit. Also, they are building on the basket tradition by doing more cross merchandising to include products from other departments. The payoff, they say, will be big numbers between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
"You could almost expect a 40% to 50% increase," said one retailer, comparing holiday sales figures to the rest of the year. "For anybody who's on the ball, during those periods, that is what they should be trying to achieve."
Bob McPherson, produce buyer at Minyard Food Stores, Coppell, Texas, said he expects his sales numbers to increase a few percentage points this year compared to last year.
"We expect good sales this year. We've had them trimmed upward all year and we see no reason why it shouldn't continue through the holiday," McPherson said. "We look for a good holiday."
As shoppers have come to expect, retailers said they will be pushing the holiday mainstays, such as cranberries, sweet potatoes and yams.
"We'll be offering the big oranges and the big apples, gift boxes, kiwi, we'll have sweet potatoes, and all those things it takes to make a good holiday [season]," McPherson said.
For a sales period that spans eight to 10 weeks, from mid-November into the first days of January, retailers will take great pains to ensure this kind of sales performance, with some having begun their planning as early as last February.
At Rice Food Markets, Houston, the produce employees are busy preparing fruit baskets, gift packs of fruit and decorating produce and floral sections in holiday motifs.
"We actually are in the process now of marching out the troops," said Mark Luchak, director of produce and floral operations at Rice.
Generally, retailers said they began promoting Thanksgiving specials about 10 days before the holiday, which is typical.
"We try to keep a pace going from Thanksgiving to Christmas," said McPherson of Minyard. "We leave that one weekend alone right after Thanksgiving and then right after that we start hitting it."
Employees at Rosauer's Supermarkets, Spokane, Wash., began augmenting holiday-oriented stock several weeks before Thanksgiving, said Norm Carpenter, produce buyer.
"We've already increased the number of gift baskets that we have on display," Carpenter said. He said the crunch was to start the week before Thanksgiving and "then just stay that way for about six weeks."
Similarly, the Edina, Minn.-based Byerly's chain began its holiday promotions about two weeks ago, starting off with canned nuts, said Jack Burns, produce buyer.
"One thing we're going to do is pick up some garlic braid strings, garlic wreaths and different things that are done with dried herbs," Burns said.
"They'll be put in a gift box and overwrapped. They kind of have a floral appeal to them, yet they last a long time."
The garlic strings will cost from $14 to $40, Burns said, and a variety of sizes will be offered.
Two years ago, Burns offered shoppers strings of garlic up to eight feet long, and strung it along his exotic fruits section in an act of strategic decorative marketing.
Byerly's also promotes smaller items, such as Fuji crabapples. "They're a great stocking stuffer," Burns said.
Last year, to prompt consumers to think of produce items as potential stocking stuffers, Burns built a fireplace display and hung stockings filled with fruits and vegetables.
"I don't know that I'm going to do that this year; every year is different," he added.
Rice in Houston this year will continue its fruit basket and boxed-fruit delivery programs.
While Luchak was reluctant to disclose sales figures to illustrate on the program's past success, he did say "We do a really fine job on boxed-fruit shipping. It's a phenomenal part of our [holiday] produce business."
Shoppers can purchase or order boxes of fresh fruit ranging from a six-pack box to a roughly 40-pound case. Prices start at $12.99 and reach $59.99, and include shipping costs.
Rice also offers a gift program that allows consumers to send one piece of fruit a month to whomever the they name as a recipient.
"We do that with seasonals, of course," Luchak said, explaining that the chain sends out citrus products, apples and pears, as well as whatever other items it may be featuring during a particular month.
"I think the more unique you get, the better. It sets you apart," Luchak said.
He said Rice's philosophy during the holidays is to offer its shoppers unique approaches to gift ideas. When two shoppers bought their daughter a horse for her birthday, for example, they came to Rice's and employees filled a horse-drawn wagon with produce.
"We custom-make anything," he said. "Actually, the word 'no' is not in our vocabulary."
At least one retailer interviewed by SN also ascribes to this ideology, saying one of the trends he sees is consumers calling for gifts that exhibit variety.
Gerland's Food Fair, Houston, promotes gift packs comprised of cases of a particular fruit, such as Texas citrus and Washington State apples, as well as gift baskets featuring assortments of locally grown produce.
While Gerland's typically offers similar promotions each year, it will put more emphasis on selling the Texas citrus this year, said Rick Noeth, vice president of produce and floral operations at the chain.
Holiday items are, for the most part, an impulse purchase, retailers said. But some retailers try to lure shoppers into their stores with creative holiday marketing.
"We have a corporate gift certificate program," said Norm Carpenter, produce buyer at Rosauer's. "We send some mailings out to solicit businesses to buy gift certificates for their employees."
Some local businesses will purchase between 50 and 100 gift certificates to give out as Christmas bonuses, he said.
"We also put posters up in our stores encouraging folks to give a gift certificate as a Christmas gift to friends and neighbors," Carpenter added. "If we can get them in and just buy a fruit basket or a turkey we're confident that most of them will shop the rest of the store."
Tidyman's, Greenacres, Wash., attempts to mate the latest produce trends, such as value-added products, with traditional sellers for the holidays, said Don Bergen, produce supervisor for the chain.
"We blend a little of the value-added items with the old standbys," Bergen said. That chain builds gift centers where shoppers can easily find an assortment of produce gifts for the holidays, he said.
Minyard will put out gift cartons from companies such as Sunkist for Thanksgiving and Christmas to entice shoppers. In-store demos, increased and upgraded advertisements and specially-designed displays help to do the same, said McPherson.
"We have some contests for the guys to create some incentive in the stores so that they can make up special displays for certain items," McPherson said.
Even typically standard items such as fruit baskets, if done creatively by the retailer, can provide some variety for shoppers searching for that unique gift idea.
"We incorporate the specialty foods and the floral items. We usually build a nice display with the gift baskets and incorporate the specialty foods," Luchak said. Caviar, fine wines and flowers are some of the items that share the basket with the produce. And the floral department will typically decorate the produce department to highlight the gift items.
Rosauer's puts a number of different gift baskets together, including baby gift baskets, a weight watcher's basket, and gourmet baskets that include wines and cheeses with "more upscale" fruit such as kiwi, Carpenter said.
At Minyard, stores offer gift baskets in a variety of weights, quantities, and different mixes of fruits, nuts candy, McPherson said.
While getting shoppers into the store is important, for retailers that offer delivery services, getting the product out is just as integral during the holidays.
Gerland's, an FTD member, has a delivery service, and usually sends out its gift baskets locally.
Rice has several vans for its local delivery service but the chain also uses carrier services, United Parcel Service and in some cases next-day air, when the delivery is too far for its drivers.