"People's lives have become detached from agriculture, and they imagine that produce is miraculously sprung from produce racks."
-- Lyle Davis, commissary and produce general manager, Alfalfa's
Lyle Davis has noticed an important point here: Merchandising points can be scored by highlighting something as basic as the source of produce sold in a supermarket.
His comment is part of this week's news feature about how a number of supermarket produce executives and managers are getting extra mileage out of their departments by rediscovering the importance of offering -- and promoting -- locally harvested produce.
It's good business: Placing an emphasis on locally grown product underscores a supermarket's connection with the wholesome nature of produce, and its connection with the local community and region. The latter linkage can be especially powerful in areas where consumers actually know farmers who grow produce.
Despite the obvious advantages of a local-produce strategy, its use shouldn't be seen as minimizing the importance of convenience-driven produce items, such as precut produce, nor as detracting from the daily miracle of out-of-season produce offerings in any way.
But as is pointed out in the Page 15 news article, written by reporter Amy I. Stickel, the promotion of locally grown produce can be a terrific merchandising tool during that precise and brief period when it's available and at its best. Needless to say, many supermarket operators have been well aware of all this right along, but at the moment it seems that numerous retailers are renewing an emphasis on locally grown items.
For instance, locally grown produce is increasingly coming under the spotlight at Giant Food, Landover, Md. "We've been involved in buying more and more local produce in recent years, but [there is] a new emphasis," said Giant's Mark Roeder, as quoted in the article.
The "new emphasis" includes in-department signs to identify locally grown items, plus the use of new television spots that show the chain's local produce buyer at work.
Ad spots follow the buyer into the fields, showing him talking to local farmers. The subtext of the buyer's chats with farmers is on product freshness and quality, as well as the speed with which it is moved from field to stores. Many other operators use similar ads intended to tout the benefits of local products. Some of those ads are cited in this week's news article. Meanwhile, backing retailers' local-produce promotions in many states and regions are flights of ads sponsored by agricultural interests. The use of these promotional methods effectively accentuates the benefits of local products in the eyes of consumers, but it's important to avoid overreaching in that regard since there is a supply-side hazard to consider. The hazard was pointed out to me not long ago while interviewing a supermarket operator in Bermuda. I asked why the chain's entire range of produce was imported when it looked as though locally grown produce was both ample and available much of the time. He said the reason was that the produce departments at his chain of several stores alone would deplete the entire production capacity of the island in two days' time. That's a stark example, but all supermarket operators face the danger of promising their shoppers locally grown items which, it might develop, can't be consistently supplied. That's a situation that would quickly undermine the best merchandising program. But, as is pointed out in the news article, many operators deal with the prospect of shortage by developing long-term relationships with farmers who are willing to step up their output in concert with what retailers' merchandising strategies mandate.
Despite such challenges, there's little doubt that supermarket operators can profit on several levels through the offer of locally grown items. After all, many operators find that consumers are willing to pay extra to obtain local produce items. And that's a better measure than most of a program's value.