FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Private-label produce programs that emphasize perfect-looking products may help grow the premium store-brand category -- but they could also raise unrealistic customer expectations.
That issue was raised during a panel discussion on "The Emerging Produce Consumer" at the recent Annual Produce Conference here.
Mark Hilton, director of produce and floral for Harris Teeter, Charlotte, N.C., said his 142-unit chain has "gone to the extreme as far as quality goes" for its Premier Selection brand of produce.
He said the chain is so strict with its quality standards that the chain sometimes refuses inferior shipments at the warehouse. "We utilize it as an edge for us," he said.
While the Harris Teeter program does not promote the growers who supply the Premier Selection fruits and vegetables, most suppliers are proud to have the Harris Teeter name on their produce, he said.
However, one audience member questioned such emphasis on perfect-looking private-label produce, saying, "everything is not grown in molds, and every mother's child is not always pretty."
Panel moderator Thomas Pierson, a professor of food marketing at Michigan State University, East Lansing, Mich., said markets do exist for produce that is high quality but less than perfect.
"I really do think we've got to emphasize the positive where it exists, and, in some cases where we have the opportunity, to go beyond myth and perception that may not be correct," Pierson said.
Pierson's co-moderator, John Allen, also a professor at Michigan State, said the emphasis on quality, not physical perfection, has worked for Andronico's Park & Shop.
He quoted Fred Mooney, the chain's director of produce operations, who said, "We're targeting customers, rich, poor and in-between, who love food and who love flavor. These are the people who we target. They're looking for quality, not just pretty produce, but for the value of what they get."
Walter D'Agostino, vice president of D'Agostino Supermarkets, Larchmont, N.Y., agreed with Hilton that quality is important for a private-label produce program to succeed. "You can't just throw your name on anything," he said.
Peter Zeithammel, produce supervisor for Spartan Stores, a Grand Rapids, Mich.-based wholesaler, said his chain currently has five private-label items and is looking to expand the category.
"We started out very softly with it. We picked some of the more uniform staple items. That's been very successful for us," he said.
The panelists also discussed the importance of sampling among both shoppers and produce department employees.
Hilton of Harris Teeter said training associates to offer samples is one way to cash in on the produce department's unique setup in the supermarket.
"We don't have a case per se to shield us from customers, like the meat department does," said Hilton.
D'Agostino said his 24-unit chain is encouraging employees to sink their teeth into their jobs. "We want to get associates eating the product," he said. They need to have first-hand knowledge of the produce if they are going to sell it effectively to consumers. He added that this represents a shift for D'Agostino's, which used to frown on employees sampling store merchandise.
Sampling must be done aggressively if it is going to work, said Allen of Michigan State. "Sampling is an extension of an associate's commitment," he said. "Just laying stuff out on a table is like feeding birds."
The panel members agreed that attracting, maintaining and properly training produce employees is a perennial problem.
Hilton of Harris Teeter said his chain is always working to train new and old employees because of the level of turnover. "It never stops."
"We're trying to stem the tide of turnover," said Zeithammel of Spartan Stores. He said tying-in all components of a produce operation is important and that "Just rewarding sales is not enough."
Zeithammel said staffing the produce department throughout the day is another challenge for managers. He referred to the "old sunrise syndrome" where the most experienced employees were scheduled to work early in the day. That left the most inexperienced part-timers to work in the peak times of the afternoon and evening.
He suggested using register readings to track the busiest times in individual stores, and arranging hours accordingly.
The panelists also discussed what Hilton called the "explosive" growth of value-added produce. Hilton said Harris Teeter is currently dedicating 12 to 20 feet of multideck cases to the category.
"It is our fourth-largest category in the produce department, behind bananas, apples and potatoes," Hilton said.
At Spartan-supplied stores, the average size of the value-added category is 16 to 32 feet, said Zeithammel. "We've had to tackle space problems," he said. In newer stores, multideck cases are installed for the category.