CHICAGO - Retailers are using new products, year-round supply and better merchandising to keep the produce department relevant to today's health- and convenience-minded shoppers.
In one example, Sweetbay Supermarkets doubled the assortment to more than 600 SKUs in the produce departments within two years, according to Steve Williams, director of produce and floral for the Delhaize Group chain, that's replacing the Tampa, Fla.-based Kash n' Karry stores. In fact, fresh produce is the "No. 1 showcase department" at Sweetbay, he said.
"We want consumers to shop that department," Williams said. "They know we're serious about quality, variety and freshness."
In fact, upgrading the department was the "most challenging task" in developing the banner, Williams said. The Delhaize Group operates 32 Sweetbay supermarkets, and by the end of the year will have nearly 70 open. Next year, the company plans to retire the Kash n' Karry banner completely, and have 109 Sweetbay stores operating.
By moving produce to the front of the store, the company enjoyed a 2%-3% lift in distribution, Williams said. The department "fully engulfs the consumer," and offers a large assortment of conventional as well as unique items. For example, Williams noted that a four-foot section featuring Thai eggplant, Thai coconuts, bok choy and baby cabbage has done so well that the company most likely will increase it.
"Consumers today expect to find a lot of variety," he said. "People want to come in your stores and find that unique product. We carry over 27 varieties of peppers and over 20 varieties of tomatoes."
The company also uses eye-catching signs to guide and attract shoppers. Signs offer a description of the item, price, picture and the Sweetbay logo. They're an effective tool, helping boost sales of seemingly exotic items like Chinese long beans, Williams said.
"You see shoppers stop and read" the signs, he said.
Convenience stores are taking a different approach to boosting their fresh produce assortment. An official from the Wawa c-store chain reviewed the performance of value-added fresh produce, noting that fresh-cut fruit cups, bowl salads and vegetable snacks are all posting sales increases, particularly the fruit cups.
"Our vision is to simplify our customers' daily lives," said Frank Preis, quality assurance manager for the Wawa, Pa.-based chain of 550 stores. "We call it 'express produce.'"
From 2004 to 2005, the stores saw sales of fruit cups increase by 23%, bowl salads by 9% and vegetable snacks by 13%. In many stores, the grab-and-go products are highlighted in a four-sided, multi-deck case.
Wawa's selection includes three sizes of fruit cups, salads in clear plastic bowls with compartments for the salad ingredients and snacks such as sliced apples with peanut butter for dipping, apples and grapes with low-fat yogurt, grapes and cheese with crackers, and cups of carrot and celery sticks.
The retailer plans to roll out some new items for the summer, including Caribbean-blend salads, mango fruit cups, mixed fruit trays, cantaloupe snack packs, strawberry and chocolate dippers, and veggies and herb dips, Preis said.
To make the program work, the company uses an automated ordering system and just-in-time delivery to minimize stock stored in back rooms, Preis said. Such strategies help reduce shrink from unsold stock, he said, adding that, "we'll throw it away rather than mark it down."
Highland Park, Ill.-based Sunset Foods recently changed its print advertising to highlight various fresh produce items, touting the products that are unique to Sunset, high in nutritional value or superior in flavor. The service-oriented chain of four stores highlights locally grown produce, buying from Didier Farms, a centrally located operation for all of Sunset's stores, and the "last farm standing on the North Shore," said Peter Fitzgerald, Sunset's produce director.
"Didier participates in local farmers' markets," Fitzgerald said. "We promote them and they promote us."
Fitzgerald described the produce department as the "cornerstone" of the store. In 1980, the retailer rolled out salad bars, and now they've become focal points of the departments. Sunset stores offer conventional and certified organic produce items at the same retails "whenever possible," Fitzgerald said.
The chain was one of the first in the area to promote organics, and is expanding the organic selection, he said.
"We know much of the appeal of produce is eye appeal," he said. "When we let customers decide, both organic and conventional sales increase."
The retailers made their comments during the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association expo, held here during the annual Food Marketing Institute show.