SAN ANTONIO -- Retailers should integrate organic produce with their regular offerings rather than merchandise it in a separate section.
That is the advice of Sara Starr, president of Starr Track, Eureka, Calif., a marketing firm that tracks trends in natural foods, who spoke at a seminar on organics at the recent annual convention here of the Produce Marketing Association.
Starr, a board member of the Greenfield, Mass.-based Organic Trade Association, said integrating organics in the produce department allows retailers to fill in gaps should supplies be tight or unavailable.
Panelist Todd Koons, president and chief executive officer of TKO Farms, Sausalito, Calif., a supplier of organic salad mixes, agreed with Starr, and also advised retailers who are starting an organics program not to take on too much at once. "Personally, I feel you should actually zero in on 10 or 12 that are available consistently. I feel there are at least 10 items that people can start with that have some relative consistency and a good balance of fruits and vegetables," he said. Both panelists acknowledged that a lack of steady, consistent supply of organic produce has plagued the organics industry from the beginning.
Starr said she can empathize with retailers who are just starting an organics program and who are frustrated with inconsistent supply. "If I were a retailer, I would start small," she said.
She said she had worked with a small retailer in Pittsburgh when he introduced an organic produce program. Starr said the retailer had the most success with what she called "hardware items." These were items that are easier to handle and have some durability, like carrots, potatoes and some of the citrus fruits, she said.
A successful organic produce program also requires commitment from every level in a retail operation, Starr said.
"In a supermarket, it really helps to have a champion, someone who's really committed to bringing this in. Without that kind of commitment, you're really going to have a problem," she said.
Koons agreed, saying that some types of organic produce require more care than retailers may be used to. "It does take a lot of floor staff and a lot of concentration on the rack itself to build a successful program. That really means committing dollars somehow to make sure the people are out there," he said. Koons said consumers and retailers alike need more education about organics. "I know when I go to produce stores and ask clerks sometimes what the organic nature of this product is, I get this complete blank stare," he said.
Koons estimated about "93% to 97% of the population has no clue about organics." He said the organics industry needs to provide a massive educational effort, similar to the national 5-a-Day program, which is designed to encourage consumers to eat five servings of fruits and vegetables every day. He suggested personalizing organic produce by telling a little bit about some of the growers. He said that might provide some "emotional contact" for the consumer. Starr said the Organic Trade Association has developed materials to help retailers promote organics, including banners, tote bags, T-shirts, produce aprons, stickers, shelf talkers and bag stuffers with consumer education information.
"I think organic really does take a lot of educational efforts, because there tends to be a premium for organic products. If your customers are going to buy it, you need to help explain why," she said.