ANAHEIM, Calif. -- The fresh-cut produce industry needs to jump-start marketing efforts to overcome frustrating market-share hurdles, according to executives at a seminar here.
Faced with statistics that show 45% of consumers aren't regularly using fresh-cut salads, the industry is debating ways of improving share for salads and other precut items.
Among the imperatives are identifying target customers, tying into industry promotions and motivating new product trials, executives said during a workshop at the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association's convention.
"If you come to me with a new product now, we want to make sure that the first question out of our mouths is, 'who is your target customer?' " said Bruce Knobeloch, director of produce for Schnuck Markets, St. Louis.
"That's because we've identified that we may not be able to sell every fresh-cut product to every customer who walks in our store. Forty-five percent of them, we find, don't use it on a regular basis."
One of the first steps for retailers should be to link with the produce industry's established marketing efforts, Knobeloch stressed.
"I think there's a tremendous nutritional marketing opportunity that retailers haven't totally tapped into yet," he said.
John Dutton, managing director of Geest-Bourne Salads Ltd. in the United Kingdom, said at the workshop that the industry still needs to tackle psychological issues surrounding the category.
"There's still a guilt factor about paying extra for these pre-cut items," he said. "We have to demonstrate the value to the consumer."
He added that marketing efforts need to focus on familiarizing consumers with these products.
"In the United Kingdom, we're seeing fast sales growth, but the consumer penetration isn't increasing. Only four of 10 consumers buy the product. We must get these noticed by more consumers in the store."
Steve Taylor, chief executive officer of Fresh Express Farms, Salinas, Calif., urged marketers to improve their advertising efforts and expand promotions to new products.
"We think there's a lot of opportunity to make promotions and ads more efficient," he said. "You need to integrate category-management elements and create new ad programs for higher margin products. We can move consumers from garden salads into blends and into kits."
Another potential bright spot for the future of the fresh-cut portion of the business is the fruit category, which executives in the workshop said will eventually benefit from advances.
"I think fresh-cut fruit is very exciting," said Dennis Gertmenian, chairman and chief executive officer of Ready Pac Produce, Irwindale, Calif. "It's long in coming, but will be important as the technology develops."
But the fruit-category's problems with maintaining quality in packages -- particularly when fruit mixtures are involved -- is a frustrating hurdle.
"We have to do careful packaging with fruits because of food-safety issues," Gertmenian said. "But it's difficult to do that and still present a product the consumer wants. If we can get satisfactory responses from consumers each time, then we've won. But when reactions are inconsistent, it's a problem."
The panelists said they are also looking to raw-product developments to help sustain fresh-cut category growth.
"We'll see seed varieties in the near future that are flavor specific to fresh cut," Knobeloch said.
On the other hand, the executives agreed that a food-safety crisis would be the biggest impediment to growth faced by the fresh-cut industry.
"If we don't focus on food safety and do something about it, we'll be in trouble," said Dave Eldredge, vice president of sales and marketing for Tanimura & Antle, Salinas, Calif. "It has to be a major focus and concern."