Supermarket produce blooms in summer, and retailers go to great lengths to maximize the merchandising potential of in-season fruits and vegetables.
Those lengths might include -- literally -- lengthening the produce department to accommodate the extra seasonal volume.
"Summer's when we feature local-grown peaches, squash, collard greens, okra, cabbage, cantaloupe, watermelons, tomatoes, beans and grapes -- scuppernongs and muscadines," according to the list recited by Cecil Spurlock, director of produce for W. Lee Flowers, a 54-store IGA operator in South Carolina and Georgia.
"We also sell some local-grown kiwi, and we're trying corn for the first time this summer," he added. "We try to go at least 72 [linear] feet in summer, with two 12-foot tables in produce, and lots of space for drop bins."
Brian Gannon, director of produce and floral for Big Y Foods, the 45-store chain based in Springfield, Mass., describes the period from May to September as "our most significant dollar period." The chain's departments maintain their average size of 3,000 square feet, but often gain valuable real estate at the front of the store, he said.
"When we have items at the front door, they have to drive excitement. They need to either promote impulse sales or because they're a big ad item," Gannon said. "It's got to be something worthwhile, or it's not a responsible use of that prime-area footprint."
At Bonson's Pick 'n Save, far in northern Wisconsin, summer produce means more to customers who have a short time to enjoy the warmer weather, and the store's entire 4,000-square-foot produce department recasts itself to take advantage of available volume. Chuck Bonson, co-owner of the store, in the summer resort area of Eagle River, said some differences are more obvious than others.
"You expand your selection of soft fruits and scale back on citrus," he said, describing the shift in emphasis on in-season product.
"Right now, we're carrying a full 16 feet of red and green grapes," he added, an increase of more than 50% from off-season space.
Ron Pelger, a former retail produce executive and owner/founder of Ronprocon Inc., a Reno, Nev.-based produce consulting firm, calls summer the most exciting season of the year for produce, even though it means more work for buyers, managers and associates.
"It's certainly the biggest volume period, due to the stone fruit, cherries, melons, berries and grapes that are being harvested," he said. "It's time for massive, aggressive displays."
Pelger, who's also a columnist for The Produce News, a category trade publication, said the success of the summer season depends not only on good weather and abundant crops, but the ability of retailers to move that volume into the hand of consumers.
"Smart managers plan ahead," he said. "Retail produce directors and buyers need to know if the season is going to be late or early for each item, because the stores -- and consumers -- are waiting for them."
Big Y's Gannon calls all his produce managers to headquarters at the beginning of each May to officially kick off the summer-selling season. During the meeting, Gannon reviews handling procedures, promotions, merchandising schemes and related subjects.
"A lot of it's repetitive, but it's still important because it regards what we want to accomplish, our sales goals and our image points," he said. "We just want to remind everyone about those things and their importance to our success."
At Spurlock's IGA stores -- 23 are company-owned and another 29 are partially owned and supplied by Flowers and Co. -- summertime produce arrives daily at stores from local farms participating in a program sponsored by the state's department of agriculture, which helps farmers promote their items.
"We pick up fruits and vegetables in our trucks, since the farms are near our stores," said Spurlock. "We backhaul these items into our warehouse for redistribution within two days. We have to do this because everything is tree ripe and it has to move quick."
Indeed, timing is everything for summer produce, and experienced retailers know to manage the intricacies of moving tons of time-sensitive fruits and vegetables. Bonson's, who pulls inventory -- including produce -- from Roundy's, Pewaukee, Wis., highlights fresh fruit and vegetables in a freestanding merchandising center right inside the front door, adjacent to produce. Here, Bonson said department managers are urged to cooperate in building total-store cross-merchandising displays.
"The effort to create theater is an ongoing learning experience," Bonson said. "For produce department managers, it takes their ability to display to a higher level. It's not just putting strawberries on display."
Instead, there are fresh strawberry shortcakes from the bakery, as well as all the components so customers can build their own. The strategy is to fill two, 4-foot refrigerated cases and two "Barcelona-style" dry merchandising carts, and a custom step display with as many themed options as managers can think up.
The completed picture creates quite a tempting shopper intercept point -- right inside the front door.
"This [integration] ties a lot of departments together, and we want to put this kind of thinking throughout the store," said Bonson.
Time is also a critical component for Flowers and Co.'s IGAs when scuppernong and muscadine grapes start shipping in mid-August. The Southeast natives are available for only a short time, through September, which increases demand, said Spurlock.
"We sell a tremendous amount of both varieties," he said. "It's a grape with more juice -- scuppernongs are lighter, and the muscadines -- kind of like second cousins to scuppernongs -- are darker."
Demand is such that stores can display up to three pounds of the grapes in deep-dish trays, set right on the table. "And we run big displays," he added. "We might run four rows wide on a rack, they sell so good here."
Retailers agreed that most summer fare can sell itself, by virtue of the natural colors and aromas in-season product brings to stores. But with the new emphasis on profitability, merchandising has taken on a whole new meaning and greater importance in the high-margin department. Produce in particular is susceptible to oversimplified thinking that can negatively impact profits, Gannon noted.
"If you're just focusing on sales, setting up your labor in terms of dollars, you could hurt yourself in produce departments because the retails naturally go down, [even though] your pieces go up," he said. "And it takes labor to move those pieces, especially in the summer. Your people have to work the displays a lot more, process more high-labor items like cut fruit, greens and melons."
The finicky profit formula makes it all the more critical to find ways to maximize the impact fresh, off-the-tree produce can have on consumers. Among the prime real estate topping Pelger's list is use of the table endcap, which makes high-volume items even more visible than they would be as part of an in-line display.
"Selling produce is like psychology. You don't have to be a magician," he said. "You do have to know how a customer shops the department."
Another favorite -- a freestanding, mid-aisle display -- creates a customer intercept because it forces shoppers to go around it. Here, Pelger suggested dummying up boxes so the amount of product in the display is reduced, though the finished effect still creates the perception of abundance.
"Use the original boxes, especially those with colorful graphics," Pelger said. "Dummy them up 50% to 75%, and put the product on top of those boxes. It gives the effect of a lot of product, when it really isn't, so you can take one box of peaches and spread it over a two-box area. It controls shrink and still gives massive appearance."
Boxes can also be built up in the same manner in front of dry tables to create extensions that help in building waterfall displays of high-volume items. Such abundance generates incremental sales "because the extra, especially if it carries a good gross margin, helps the overall mix. It pays for the low-price items on the front page of the circular," Pelger said.
Big Y's annual promotion, "Taste the Colors of Summer," takes the message directly to shoppers via television, print and an annual magazine series. The 36-page issue for June profiles "Summer's Healthy Harvest: Fruits and Vegetables that Heal." The list includes tomatoes, corn, blueberries, peaches, melons and cherries. The article discusses certain health attributes of each item, and provides consumer tips on selection and home storage. Lush, full-color images of the fruits and vegetables featured highlight their in-season appeal.
Salad basics also get a bold write-up with "Great Greens!", which provides consumers with a glossary of some of the more popular leafy vegetables. Here, there are descriptions and photographs of arugula, dandelion and watercress, and many in between. The glossary highlights the healthy aspects of each item, provides storage suggestions and includes a flavor profile of each green.
With the profusion of produce coming in, many departments are seeking outside assistance in moving volume. The help comes in many forms. The California Tree Fruit Agreement, Reedley, Calif., has launched its first-ever, in-store sampling program of stone fruit, offering a kit to stores that puts peaches, plums and nectarines in the mouths of customers.
Dave Parker, CTFA's director of merchandising, said the program has been in great demand. Of the 20,000 kits manufactured, less than 2,000 remained at the end of June.
"Most are arriving at stores right now so that delivery would coincide with peak flavor and supply time."
The program stresses casual, or speed, demoing, where the produce person takes a ripe piece of fruit and after a taste, walks around the department and samples the rest off to shoppers.
"The idea is to simply find a half-dozen people and give them a taste," said Parker. "It's something that might not be done all that frequently, but maybe when the produce person has a few extra minutes and sees a likely looking crowd."
The CTFA kit includes an old-fashioned Viewmaster toy with a series of images introducing and outlining the program; signage promoting the tastings; two mylar balloons with an image of a produce person holding out piece of fruit saying, "Ask for a Taste!"; and tear-off pads for consumers.
But the secret weapon here is a sealed pouch of 20 plastic sampling knives. Each knife is sheathed to allay food-safety concerns, and each sheath has a reprint of the sampling strategy. To maintain interest, participating retailers will receive new packs of knives through July -- the end of peak stone fruit season, according to Parker.
The sampling program is specifically designed to help retailers move in-season volume as quickly as possible. Five years ago, CTFA introduced a store-level ripening protocol that has greatly improved the quality of fruit in produce departments. But last summer consumer focus groups revealed that shoppers still held on to the old perception that store-bought stone fruit was usually too hard, mealy or tasteless.
"That was our whole logic in developing the sampling program. We saw retailers on the protocol, and we had been recommending to them to tell their customers what they were doing. But when the focus groups showed us that word of mouth wasn't enough, we found that tasting is believing -- which is the motto for this program."
One additional retailer benefit of the speed sampling program is that produce managers actually get to check the quality of the fruit daily by sampling a piece first, before offering it to customers, Parker added.
Chuck Bonson has focused much of his attention on educating his store managers about total-store selling, a concept he finds to be a powerful tool motivating customer sales. The retailer developed an ongoing program that in turn has helped break down barriers between department "turf." Bonson began taking his fresh-foods department managers on tours of Wisconsin and Illinois stores to examine merchandising techniques elsewhere.
"We had been working with the department managers for the past year, and it will be an ongoing process," he said. "You can learn good merchandising tips from any retail store and just transfer them to produce."
The adoption of total-store merchandising strategies helps Bonson's overcome the limitations of a shorter summer season. The retailer uses its Northern location to full advantage even come autumn. The area is a major cranberry-producing hub, and the retailer resets the 24-square-foot themed display station with everything from fresh cranberries to cranberry muffins from the ISB.