ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Nearly 600 supermarkets are celebrating Earth Day on Sunday, April 22, by taking part in Organic Alliance's second annual Mother Earth's Organic Festival. Thirteen chains with supermarkets in 20 states from Alaska to South Carolina have signed on to promote specific products.
While all categories of certified organic products are promoted, fresh produce -- represented for the second year by Earthbound Farm and Dole Fresh Vegetables -- occupies a leading position among this year's 18 participating manufacturers and producers. According to industry organizers, a consumer's first exposure to organic has usually been through produce.
"If you really want your store to be known as an organic food store, the first step is to have an excellent organic produce program," said Angela Sterns, executive director of the non-profit organization behind the festival.
Although only 1% of all food currently produced in the U.S. is organic, supermarkets are paying more attention to the organic tag, she told SN.
"I think retailers can see the writing on the wall that organics is a growing industry and has been for some time, and as they see organics merchandising becoming more visible, they want to be part of it," Sterns said.
All manufacturers and producers who've signed on for the event pay a sponsorship fee; participating stores, in turn, promote these sponsored participants' items through signage, literature and especially demonstrations. Sterns cited industry statistics showing that these methods can pay off, since 70% of purchase decisions are generally made in-store.
"Produce is usually the hottest organic category at our events, and produce demos do well because, in the minds of most customers, 'organic' means produce," Sterns said. "Consumers make the connection between conventionally grown produce and chemicals. That's why organic packaged salad sales are going through the roof. People are looking for convenience but are still looking to see if it's organic."
Larry Mauren, produce director for Kowalski's Markets, also based in St. Paul, is looking forward to the chain's four-store, first-time participation at this year's festival, where one of his demos features Earthbound salad mix and an organic salad dressing, two of the sponsored promotional products.
However, Mauren is a big fan of produce demos during the rest of the year, too, and he works with suppliers to ensure they provide produce -- and sometimes even a stipend for the host -- for weekend demos that feature both organically and conventionally grown products. His stores also provide daily passive demos that may be as simple as helping yourself to a sliced half of an organically grown banana from a covered tray.
"There's a segment of customers that comes to us specifically looking for a wide variety of [organic] fruits and vegetables, so we just bring in a wider variety," Mauren said. "It seems that, if demand is there, more growers and shippers appear to give us more choices."
And if a customer likes a particular product, it simply paves the way for a wider variety of purchases, as in the case of organic packaged salad mixes, he said.
"The packages contain greens like frisee, radicchio and romaine," Mauren noted. "People who discover a new green they like in their packaged mix then go and buy that particular green, unpackaged on its own. So, packaged greens sales promote the sale of fresh."
Mauren estimates that organic produce sales account for about 25% of Kowalski's total fresh produce revenues, with that percentage increasing all the time. "If price point and quality of both organic and conventional produce are the same, we'll often just carry the organic," he said.
In an effort to educate his customers year-round, Mauren also creates extensive, health-related signage and literature, often getting his information from Web sites such as www.aboutproduce.com, sponsored by the Produce for Better Health Foundation, and Produce Marketing Association. He also oversees "Chalk Talk," a blackboard near the department that he fills with nutritional information.
On the East Coast, Mike Evans, whole-health coordinator for Food Circus Foodtown, a Freehold, N.J.-based, 12-store operator, is gearing up for eight of his stores' second-time participation in the event. The chain's other four stores -- with too small an organic selection to merit a festival appearance this year -- will be expanding their organics category in time for next year's celebration. Like Mauren, Evans has seen what in-store demos can do to raise customer awareness, thereby spurring subsequent purchases.
"Customers aren't always too sure about organic food benefits or what it tastes like," Evans said. "But if customers see how things are made, taste how delicious it is, and can take recipes home, they do buy."
This year, Evans, who has noted a 30% increase in revenue from organic produce over the last year, has expanded his Mother Earth's Organic Festival agenda by hiring professional chef Tom Ney, who's also director of food marketing at Rodale Press, publishers of Organic Gardening and Organic Style magazines. Ney will lead three culinary demos during the celebration at Food Town's Oakhurst store, including ones for "Tuscan Vegetable Stew," using fresh produce, and "Blueberry Wild Purple Smoothie," featuring Cascadian Farms' frozen fruit and Horizon Organic Dairy's milk.
Evans' promotional vision also extends year-round, when he coordinates events with the chain's produce director, Joe DeLorenzo. "In the summer, when local, New Jersey-grown, organic produce is available, we'll be setting up more in-store, cooking demos," Evans said.
But with the ever-increasing interest in organic produce, who can explain the presence of only two participating Mother Earth's Organic Festival produce suppliers?
According to Sterns, there has yet to emerge strong brand names on bulk items like heads of lettuce, bunches of broccoli or other organically grown fruits or vegetables. The lack of national distribution is also hampering development.
"Organic produce is grown all over the world, but distributed regionally, so not all broccoli comes from the same source or grower," Sterns explained. "From a national manufacturing point of view, we can't market all-organic broccoli unless we tap into all-organic broccoli sources. But this problem is a real opportunity for organic produce growers to find a way to fund and create a good, overall marketing program."
Organics is complicated to promote nationally, according to Sterns, because for every national association devoted to the promotion of one conventionally grown fruit or vegetable, there's a marginal organic category. But those associations don't talk specifically about the organically grown item.
Food Circus' Evans has also observed this issue at the retail level. "Customers who buy organic are not necessarily brand loyal, but they're loyal to the particular organic product," he said.