TORONTO (FNS) -- It's time for produce retailers to turn on the merchandising juice as never before, because business is operating in a climate that is more favorable than it probably ever has been, said Canadian produce specialist Pete Luckett.
Luckett, who has earned celebrity status as a produce expert on Canadian television and is the owner of Pete's Frootique stores in Eastern Canada, said now is the time to do "amazing things" in produce. He spoke at the recent annual Grocery Showcase here of the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers.
The fruit and vegetable business has gone through "incredible changes" in the 15 years that he has been running Pete's Frootiques, he said, "and it's still changing. Never before in the history of food has produce been so important as right now. I mean, we've got heart attacks, cholesterol, eating healthy -- we've got everything focused today on produce."
Rather than offer fellow retailers prescriptions on how to pursue this opportunity, however, he preferred to talk about his own approach to the challenge.
"It will always be personal. You can never put it in a computer, you can never put it in a guidelines book. It requires lots of skill -- anything from artistic skills, communication skills, common sense skills to work-19-hour-days skills."
Luckett started to trade in the fruit and vegetable business at the age of 15, in northern England. He opened a tiny store in Nottingham, took a hiatus to travel, and a few years later wound up in eastern Canada with $300 in his pocket, he said. He rented a 12-foot bench at the St. John Market, bought $250 worth of produce and made a display that he said "would just dazzle you; it looked like something out of an art gallery."
Now in his six produce specialty stores, display is still high on Luckett's list of priorities. He said he believes in lots of decor, fresh potted plants (which are also for sale), white halogen lights, good signage overall and hand-written signs for produce displays.
He also tries to make produce shopping an adventure.
"My store is like a maze; once the customers get in, they can't get out," Luckett said. "I don't like to put them within the sight of the cash register because they'll make a dash for it." In Luckett's stores, the cash register is not apparent until customers come around the last corner of the "maze."
The strategy keeps his average 2,400 customers a day buying more produce, he said. Not only does this increase the amount of food purchased, but it allows for a more interesting environment. To put it plainly, "Straight up-and-down aisles are boring," the entrepreneur said.
He is not thrilled by marketing based on price, either. Luckett said he keeps the price specials section in his stores to a minimum; indeed, he explained he does not put anything on special unless he's "really stuck with it."
All of this helps to create an overall welcoming ambience, he said. Part of creating a good environment is to spend a lot of time with your employees, teaching them the business. It also means taking some chances and trying things for the sake of adventure.
He recently hired a piano player to perform in his Nova Scotia store, three days a week, and says it is the best thing he's ever done, for example. Now, people are approaching him to launch cookbooks and compact discs at his store.
Another key to his success is interaction. While he can view his 4,000-square-foot Nova Scotia store from his office in Halifax, he is also often there out on the floor.
On the subject of what is selling in produce, Luckett said the industry is being affected by some recent and great changes.
"Eggplant has gone bonkers. Anything Italian, and especially plum or Roma tomatoes, is popular. Mangoes have gone from exotic to mainstream. Papayas are another big one," he said, for one thing because papayas contain an ingredient that aids digestion, which means increased demand.
Luckett is still innovating. He said he has just opened a new 1,200-square-foot store called Toodleeeedooo! that is not a produce market, but rather an all-British food and memorabilia store, that he dreamed up after he couldn't find "a decent steak and kidney pie" in Canada.