Produce used to be a pretty straightforward business. As a commodity department, it traditionally got very little assistance on the sell side. Retailers basically carried the ball -- they estimated how much they needed, and then set prices and created their own promotions to move it out. There were no grower/shipper alliances or commodity boards to supply category data, point-of-purchase signs or promotional ad materials.
Today's produce section of 600-plus stockkeeping units is a destination department of color, variety -- and power. The industry, from growers to retailers, deserves all the credit for looking ahead of the consumer buying curve and steering a sleepy, seasonal weigh station into a dynamic consumer crossroads.
The Fresh Market feature story on Page 31 examines the potential for produce to change the way Americans look at health by providing them with specific information about particular diseases or medical conditions. The Food and Drug Administration's approval of science-based labeling for qualified health claims represents a serious new way to approach consumers who are empowering themselves with knowledge of health and nutrition like never before.
Case in point: A poll conducted for SN by Harris Interactive's QuickQuery online omnibus service shows that 83% of American shoppers polled tweak their diet in some way with an eye toward protecting their health. Thirty-four percent report increasing their consumption of certain types of foods to get specific nutrients. Most -- 59% -- said they have decreased consumption of certain foods (blame that number on the current Atkins craze).
It's the former conclusion that produce marketers want to focus on, and seek to influence. Indeed, the poll also shows that, after hearing about health claims related to nutrients found in specific fruits and vegetables, 40% of American adults have increased the amount of fresh produce they eat overall, while 35% have added new varieties to their diet.
What's more, the vast majority is more likely to consider getting the nutrients directly from the source, rather than a supplement or a vitamin. It's a substantial implication for the produce industry as the FDA begins reviewing an application regarding Omega 3 fatty acids -- the first substance to come under formal review as part of its Consumer Health Information for Better Nutrition Initiative.
Herein lies a potential roadblock. Marketers have to look beyond the pure promotional power inherent in these claims, and use sound judgment in pressing to get them through the FDA and into the marketplace. The FDA has set high (if somewhat arbitrary) standards on what will satisfy them. Still, several consumer-rights groups are pressing to get the FDA to rescind the process because it's "untested and shouldn't be used until the agency has completed consumer behavior research that shows that consumers will not be misled," in the words of Center for Science in the Public Interest.
It's important, then, to approach this potentially lucrative marketing opportunity with reason and reservation. The rate at which Americans are becoming more intimate with the foods they eat is increasing, and it is only a matter of time before qualities like product information -- and accessibility to that data -- begin influencing which stores they patronize. Retailers would be wise to keep a sharp eye on the emerging claims.