Supermarkets have long used appearance to sell fresh fruits and vegetables. Overflowing displays of color, interesting shapes and carefully stacked mounds were enough to attract shoppers to the produce department.
But there's more than meets the eye. Today, retailers are at the forefront in using the category to present new scientific evidence that bolsters produce's place at the front of the health and wellness trend. And consumers are eating it up.
"Produce is increasingly a more important department," said Jack Brown, president of Stater Bros., Colton, Calif. "We have gone from 425 items to almost 800. Selection is important to our marketing program along with quality and freshness."
Items that are organic, locally grown or specialty are the stars of the health-minded produce department. Some 68% of consumers polled by the Food Marketing Institute in its most recent Trends report stated they were seeking to improve their diets by eating more fruits and vegetables. Shoppers latch onto the idea that organic or locally grown items are more healthful, and begin seeking out these products. Likewise, some specialty items, like pomegranates or mangosteens, hold the allure of exotic nutrients not found in domestic produce. But operators who don't use these items to their fullest marketing potential are doomed, said veteran supermarket executives.
"Those retailers who hang their hat on price and item will just get killed," said Larry Roberts, president of Penhollow Markets, a Thriftway-bannered independent in Seattle. "Those who stand for something, like good food and healthy living, will succeed."
Certainly, the goal of the entire industry supply chain is to increase the volume of items consumers purchase. However, most strategies to date emphasized the general halo of health surrounding fresh fruits and vegetables. Increasingly, though, modern research is helping sell produce by promoting specific health properties associated with particular varieties.
"We see the most successful marketing efforts being those that are customized to specific needs," said Laurie Demeritt, president and chief operating officer of The Hartman Group, a Bellevue, Wash.-based health and wellness market research firm. An analysis by Hartman of marketing messages aimed at customers with allergic or food sensitivity issues was dubbed as a "hot button" issue, according to Demeritt. "Organic and freshness attributes, particularly when it comes to local and seasonal produce, are other concerns that are bubbling up in core customers," she said.
Consumers, more knowledgeable than ever about individual nutrients, no longer require lengthy explanations of potassium or antioxidants. In part, this is due to the barrage of scientific studies and news reports detailing the benefits of these nutrients. The effort also has been helped tremendously by the Produce for Better Health Foundation, along with all the various commodity boards and marketing groups. These produce partners have hammered home the "eat more fruits and vegetables" message within the consumer media, and within retail formats with a bevy of danglers, tags, brochures and posters, each offering a healthy lifestyle suggestion.
"There is a lot of consumer interest in health," said Bryant Wynes, the PBH's senior executive of retail marketing. "Retailers are in a prime position to reach their customers with health messages and customers want retailers to deliver those messages."
The Wilmington, Del.-based organization has announced a new program dubbed "Fruits & Veggies - More Matters." Officially rolling out next year, this campaign uses the current USDA guidelines as a baseline for consumption, and will replace the present "5-9 A Day" brand, which was introduced in 1991.
"If you look at current consumption levels, about two cups per day, and overlay that on top of the USDA's recommendation of five cups per day, you immediately notice a gap," said Wynes. He predicts that closing it would represent more than $4 million per year per supermarket in additional produce sales.
"The upside is retailers don't have to steal customers to get that business," he continued. "It's walking through the store already. Even if the gap isn't totally closed, just contributing additional consumption would raise produce sales."
Chains like Stater Bros. are capturing consumers today by putting the merchandising muscle of pharmacy departments into the mix.
"We use information released in scientific studies in our advertising," Brown said. Messages including "high in vitamin C" or a "good source of potassium" or those "high in fiber" are presented in clear and easy language at the point of sale.
At Penhollow Markets' three stores, a nutritional signage initiative is under development that will detail health attributes on all produce items. One of the goals of this campaign will be to get customers thinking beyond simple consumption and into a more thoughtful mind-set, Roberts said.
"Customers are seeking more specific information," he said, noting the program, debuting in 2007, will include other departments, like deli.
To help compile the information for the signs, the retailer is working with Daniella Chace, a nationally known author and nutritionist, to develop the tagging program.
"We are focusing on health attributes," Roberts said. "In our stores, it is a personal and passionate mission to make this information available. I'm in a phase of my life where there were some real reasons to get healthy. I lost weight and changed my diet. There is a broad range of our customers who are on that same path, developing a healthy way to live while enjoying food."
A primary source of health benefit messages comes from grower groups, which either underwrite research or incorporate scientifically based studies that investigate health claims to specific commodities. Organics and locally grown goods might be getting the most attention right now, but even old standards like bananas, apples and strawberries are benefiting from the emerging strategy of blending science with merchandising, and the new ways grower partners are bringing that information to consumers.
The California Strawberry Commission is one group that continually focuses on nutrition and approved health claims, based on scientific studies. Currently, the benefits of strawberry consumption are being traced through two heart health studies, a cancer prevention study, a study on memory function and aging, and an inflammation study, according to Chris Christian, director of nutrition and category development for the Watsonville-based organization. Findings from other studies already concluded have been packaged into point-of-sale materials and supported with in-store promotions. Each time a new research project issues conclusions highlighting strawberries, the group issues media alerts to radio, television and newspapers, and also directly to retailers. Within the alert, the claim is substantiated with the specific scientific journal's reference.
"We aim to keep retailers informed," Christian said. "Retailers' own consumer affairs and staff nutritionists are getting much more involved in using fruit and vegetable nutrition information."
Apparently, the multipronged message program is working - the strawberry category posted a 14% gain in dollar sales and 15% increase in volume sales over the previous 12 months.
At store level, produce merchandisers are adding research findings to their marketing efforts to serve as one source for education right at the point of consumer decision.
Price Chopper, Schenectady, N.Y., addresses the nutritional benefits of produce items in a variety of mediums with specific attributes linked to individual items. The chain recently made produce part of a storewide healthful eating initiative under the retailer's "Healthy U" umbrella. This program encompasses all aspects of health and wellness within the store, including departments, categories and store services.
"Produce leads the way in providing nutritional information," said Mark Vanderlinden, vice president of produce merchandising at Price Chopper. "The program is a natural for produce. We bring information to our guests on the nutritional value of produce items through a column in the weekly circular and in informative brochures, signage, recipes and in nutritional information cards at the Healthy U kiosks. Information lives in the stores."
He also pointed out that Price Chopper on-staff nutritionists are kept updated with the information so they can reiterate the conclusions and put them in perspective to individual consumer needs.
Some commodity boards have had nutrition advisers in place for a longer time. The California Avocado Commission first convened a nutritional advisory committee 20 years ago, according to Jan DeLyser, the organization's vice president of marketing. These researchers across the country spearhead health claims and prepare data for submission to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for health claims approval.
Of course, no discussion of avocados would be complete without addressing the issue of fat content, which has long plagued the fruit. The committee was instrumental in developing research that brought to light the importance of fat in the diet and the healthful benefits of monounsaturated fat in particular, which is the avocado's forte.
"Before their work was released, 35% of surveyed consumers ate avocados because of healthy attributes," DeLyser said. "Now that percentage is over 70%. Accurate and continual dissemination of information is key when making health claims public."
The U.S. Potato Board has taken its health message to the streets, refitting the Mr. Potato Head character with running shoes and a water bottle to encourage physical activity. The board even brought the updated character to last year's Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, sponsoring a giant balloon for the annual event.
Balloons and parades aside, however, retailers realize that they need a little magic at the store level to market the scientific knowledge in such a way as to make it appealing. In a sense, supermarket produce managers find the shortest way to the brain is through the tastebuds, and that means reverting to more traditional, tried-and-true merchandising techniques.
"The best method of marketing is sampling so the customer can taste the flavor and freshness," said Stater Bros.' Brown. "Along with that we are looking to our future, teaching children to buy and eat healthy."
Create a standardized signage program that provides solid nutritional information, but prevents visual clutter.
Explore the science. Research the research to ferret out nutritional noise from factually based studies.
Establish a relationship with a local agriculture center, or create an ad-hoc group of experts to review claims and studies.
Beware of flip-flops. Let research stand the test of time. Flawed studies or those not indicating limitations are at risk of being dispelled in the future.