ATLANTA -- Today's produce consumer buys first with their eyes, and then looks at the price, according to a focus group at Fresh Summit '99 here, the annual convention of the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del.
The group of six women from the Atlanta area ranged in age, occupation and income from a part-time single student to a mother of three. But virtually all of them agreed that bright, fresh displays of fruits and vegetables of better quality can be the impulse that makes them stop and buy, even if prices are higher than they expect.
To that end, the panel expressed a particular fondness for cross merchandising, where produce items are paired with something else to create a convenience food, especially those that appeal to their sweet tooth. The panel, assembled by Colby, Effler & Partners Advertising, Santa Monica, Calif., cited caramel wraps and apples; bananas with pudding mix and vanilla wafers; and strawberries and shortcake as examples.
Supermarkets are in a good position to satisfy these demands, since they have other departments from which they can pull product, unlike a farmer's market or other venue that doesn't have the wealth of resources that supermarkets have, said Steve Junquiero, director of produce and floral for Save Mart Supermarkets, Modesto, Calif.
"Good merchandising and cross merchandising departments are some of the simplest things we can do as retailers to boost produce sales," he said.
Retailers enjoy the most chances to capture produce dollars from consumers, but research on buying patterns conducted by ACNielsen, Schaumburg, Ill., shows that people actually shop a variety of channels for their fruits and vegetables. Supermarkets are the clear-cut winners over competing formats when number of visits and related traffic data are used.
But according to Joe Cassano, product manager for the firm's Homescan division, figures gleaned from ACNielsen's Fresh Foods Consumer Index show that consumers actually spend more per occasion in some non-grocery channels. The tracking firm indicated that consumers shell out an average of $3.46 for produce throughout the U.S. in grocery stores, but $5.64 at fruit stands and $4.04 in wholesale stores.
Similarly, consumers spend less in supermarkets for particular specialty seasonal items like papayas, raspberries and hot peppers, among others. Cassano said that this information can help guide retailers in their efforts to maximize their merchandising strategies at store level.
The research revealed other preferences among consumers as well. There is a definite preference for loose items as opposed to bunched or wrapped items, a finding bolstered by the focus group, which appreciates touching and smelling produce prior to the buy.
Interestingly, there remains a lot of confusion and indecision when it comes to conventional versus organic produce. Against one another, conventional produce far outsells its organic counterpart. ACNielsen's Homescan data found that 41% of produce dollars are spent on regular vegetables, whereas 5% is spent on organic varieties. Likewise, 33% of all dollars going to produce are spent on conventionally grown fruit, as opposed to only 4% for organic fruit.
But, the majority of shoppers -- nearly two-thirds -- said they remain unsure as to whether the products they're purchasing are organic. The shopper's panel admitted that they generally purchased little, if any, organic items because of price differentials and a certain lack of education as to why organics may be better for them and their families. On a side note, one of the women noted that, while organic produce might be healthier for her, it lacked the eye appeal that conventional displays have.
"This shows a real opportunity for educating the consumer as to where they can find the product in the store, or what types of products might be organically grown," said Cassano.