Retailers are reaping the rewards from a new crop of state-sponsored cooperative promotions that highlight fresh foods -- particularly produce, supermarket executives and government officials told SN.
Just this summer alone, Maine introduced a marketing campaign touting native products, while several other states like Virginia refreshed their existing programs with updated slogans and colorful merchandising materials.
Participating retailers are benefiting not only from the addition of eye-catching signage in their fresh departments, but attracting consumers to homegrown items -- one of the best ways to communicate freshness, said Mike Droney, mid-Atlantic marketing representative for domestic sales for the Virginia Department of Agriculture.
"The customer knows they have fresh product coming into their store every day that's locally grown," he said. "It's not sitting in a warehouse for several days before it's shipped to the store."
Retailers can't agree more. Al Oliver, director of produce for Ukrop's Super Markets, Richmond, Va., said such programs tap into a deep well of consumer interest that acts as a prime purchase motivator.
"The mindset is that they want to support the local economy and it's fresher and tastes better," he said. "We've tried to work with the local growers to provide products that we think our consumers want and that we can sell."
The retailer's home-state program, "Virginia Grown -- Fresh From the Farm, Fresh to You," has been updated with new point-of-sale materials, and a new emphasis on retail outlets, Droney noted. Like the 27-unit independent Ukrop's, national players such as Salisbury, N.C.-based Food Lion, with 292 stores in Virginia, have also become active supporters of the revamped promotion.
"Virginia Grown was used sporadically [in supermarkets] in the past. But now, this is more colorful advertising. It even has the 5 A Day logo on it, and has created a lot of retailer support," said Droney.
For retailers like Ukrop's, which already enjoys a strong regional reputation, programs like Virginia Grown only strengthen the links between consumer, retailer and food source.
"Most of these farmers are fairly close to our stores," said Oliver. "We have actually worked with certain growers to provide product that were not available to us in Virginia in the past -- shelled butter beans, for instance. It's a tedious process to grow them and shell them, and a lot of people aren't making a whole lot of money doing it."
Ukrop's, which won the 1999 Governor's Marketeer Award for its support of state agriculture, also takes part in a local heirloom tomato program, selling lower-yield varieties that are sensitive to long-distance shipping.
"Hanover County here is known for their tomatoes," Oliver said. "You can charge more for these tomatoes than you would a regular one. People recognize that 'branded' name and we sell them like that on the signage."
Like most state promotional programs, Virginia Grown leaves transportation logistics and quality control to farmers and retailers. If the arrangement uses direct-store delivery, then the department manager and farmer discuss specifications; however, if the produce goes to a warehouse, then the items are inspected like everything else, said Droney. And there are variations. He noted that Food Lion sent out a spec list for some 30 items it was seeking from local growers, and the state agriculture agency sent it along to farmers.
"Everyone knows a store wants good quality, or they won't accept it," said Droney.
POP materials are sent to stores directly or through corporate facilities at no cost to retailers. The program is paid for by funds set aside by the legislature -- $50,000 this year, he added. But retailers often accessorize their state-program displays with their own touch.
"We went out and got pictures of farmers and their farm, their families, and really tried to put those pictures on the products they grow, to give the customer that link," Oliver said of Ukrop's own efforts to maximize the farm-to-fork story as a merchandising tool.
"As a retailer, we really look forward to this time of year. The stores get excited. We talk about how we're going to merchandise our market and highlight the local products. We actually identify those products in our ads and in displays at the local level. Summer brings our highest produce sales of the year."
The retailer bolsters the effort with store contests, with awards for the best displays, or the highest dollar volume, he said.
Maine's brand new program, "Get Real. Get Maine!," is represented by a label going onto all sorts of food and non-food products. Unveiled just this summer, the promotion is a direct result of lawmakers' acknowledging that agriculture is a valuable asset that can be branded and sold to consumers as a means of self-sustaining support.
"All sorts of different interest groups came together and said loudly that consumers should be able to buy local products," said Deanne Herman, marketing manager for agricultural promotion in the Maine Department of Agriculture, Augusta. "There's an overall, growing concern with the sustainability of our farms and maintaining working open space and supporting small local industry."
Initially, the $250,000 in seed money is designed to be educational, and to help establish an umbrella "brand' for all products unique to the state. "It's consciousness-raising, and not just urging people to buy," Herman said.
Maine has only a few commodity-scale items -- blueberries, potatoes, eggs and milk -- and even those come from relatively small farms that are not really up to competing on a commodity level, she said. That's all the more reason to develop a logo that engenders a direct, consumer-oriented identity, via retail.
"We conceptualized this as a branding of Maine and its products, so that people who are interested in looking for Maine products can easily find them," Herman said. "Our charge here was to create a large umbrella encompassing all of Maine's food and agriculture products, from blueberries to wool."
Retailer reaction has been very positive: Shaw's Supermarkets ordered kits for all of its Maine stores to use, particularly in produce; while Scarborough, Maine-based Hannaford Bros. runs large full-page ads in local papers to complement in-store activity. Similarly, an artisan bread company in the state is using 20,000 stickers on its packages every week, according to Herman.
"We believe in this concept in its entirety, because the customers respond to it and they love it," said Bernard Rogan, corporate public relations director for Shaw's, headquartered in East Bridgewater, Mass. "So, if we can give them local corn, we'll do it."
One of the immediate, up-front benefits is the retailer's ability to fulfill its role as a "good neighbor," since farmers receive consistent prices throughout season, as well as fixed sale outlets. But, Rogan said retailers should note that such programs can cost them some margin in the short term.
"I think that a program like this has to be used by food retailers because our customers want to have that comfort factor, that they're helping support the farms in their community, particularly in Maine, where it's a very strong element of the character of the state," he said.
The retailer, with 20 stores in Maine, is using "Get Real. Get Maine!" in conjunction with its five-year-old "New England Grown" program. In both, Shaw's enters into agreements with growers before the start of the season, forgoing the spot market, so long as the products conform to the chain's quality standards and are delivered in the quantity needed. Typically, smaller farmers might deliver to three or four stores, while larger ones send product through to Shaw's central perishables facility in Methuen, Mass.
According to Rogan, the Maine promotion amplifies existing produce programs at POS, but serves a larger, total-store purpose as well, by linking the produce department, the grocery aisle and the dairy case.
"It's an augmentation to our own [New England Grown] program in the produce department, and it stands alone in the rest of the store, where Maine products appear," he said.
Of course, any discussion of state-sponsored promotions would not be complete with mentioning the granddaddy of them all: Jersey Fresh, introduced back in 1983. This program has grown to include an annual $1.9 million budget with print, radio and television ads, and today encompasses some 60 agricultural items grown on New Jersey farms.
"When we started, some people here thought New Jersey grew citrus products," recalled Ronald Good, agricultural marketing specialist for the N.J. Department of Agriculture, Trenton. "They had very little knowledge and understanding of what is grown by Jersey farmers. But each new survey we do indicates people are remembering more and more of the items."
Any fruit or vegetable in the wholesale channel looking to snag a Jersey Fresh logo sticker must first pass through grading. Under this voluntary step, state inspectors conduct spot checks for quality at various points in the distribution pipeline. If there's no USDA standard for a particular item, then inspectors use a state version.
"They have to meet USDA one or higher grade -- and usually it's higher than USDA -- simply to make it better quality, so when it leaves the packing house and goes into the distribution system, it's the best it can be," said Good, adding that grading makes the program all the more attractive to retailers because store-level produce managers don't always have to backtrack to see what shape the arriving product is in.
There is barely a single retailer in the Garden State who hasn't participated in one way or another with Jersey Fresh. Rich Savner, director of public affairs and government relations for Pathmark Stores, Carteret, N.J., said the chain's 62 stores in the state (of 137 total) take part every year.
"The produce is first class a far as we're concerned, and anything that Pathmark sells, we take great pains to make sure it's the best quality we can provide our customers," he said.
Pathmark's produce category managers regularly visit farms in their market area and meet with the growers, look at the crops and cultivate a relationship beyond the phone, added Savner, echoing retailers working in other programs in various states. "It lets the growers know who Pathmark is, and that we're interested in what they're doing beyond supporting a state government program," he said.
Last year, circulars even included large photographs of category managers in the fields of their farmer partners, which extended the same community-oriented message to the consumer level, he added.
The majority of Pathmark's Jersey Fresh program revolves around select areas of each store's produce department, where a designated "sidecap" to the fresh-cut, value-added footprint serves as a local gateway to produce, especially in summer, Savner said.
"We feature Jersey tomatoes, corn and peaches, each in turn. When you walk into Pathmark's produce aisles, that's where we feature these select items, depending on the time of season," he said.
This type of focused merchandising is the product of years of cooperation between the state, the retailer and the farming community, all working together to hone the fine points of the program, said the state's Good. The combined effect of colorful signage, quality produce and a strong retail merchandising program is powerful and difficult to resist.
"There's a certain connotation when consumers hear Jersey Fresh, whether it's blueberries, peaches or tomatoes," concurred Savner. "They expect a certain quality, and a great taste. The fact that this program is supported by just about every major retailer in New Jersey speaks to the success of it and is a credit to the state, retailers and farmers as far as working together."
Some consumers have come to specifically ask about certain products, added Good. In fact, the percentage of Jersey-grown produce on the shelves in the early 1980s, before the program's launch, was about 13% in-season. Now, it's up to 30% or more in some chain stores -- all due to demand.
"Produce managers tell us that their customers do come in and ask 'When are the Jersey Fresh products coming in?' That's because they see all the advertising that tells them to go to their local supermarket and ask for Jersey Fresh," he said.