When it comes to food, there are no cultural barriers, and that's certainly true of retail produce departments, where demand for fruits and vegetables with ethnic appeal has been steadily growing.
The interest in exotic produce is the result of "the influx of a variety of demographics into America that support culinary diversity on the produce shelf, the desire to eat more healthfully, and the growing exposure through television and restaurants to imported produce and new breeds of hybrid produce," said Lorna Christie, senior vice president of industry products and services for the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association.
Retailers are responding to that growth "by gathering marketing information that tells them which products appeal to the demographics that might be in their retail zones," Christie said. "It's good marketing."
Karen Caplan, president of Los Alamitos, Calif.-based Frieda's, said the marketer and distributor of specialty produce has seen a "huge surge in demand and supply for foods imported from other countries, especially in produce. And not just in California, but in all parts of the nation.
"Stop & Shop, for example, is based in the Northeast, but they're one of our largest clients," Caplan said. "We ship much of our produce east of the Mississippi."
Food preferences, especially for produce, "are less and less dependent on cultural traditions and are more and more the result of a growing desire among many consumers to try new tastes and to experiment with innovative recipes," she said.
Among the segments growing the fastest are Spanish and Asian cuisines. "There's a lot of diversity around those cuisines," Christie said. Some
of the produce items growing the fastest are dragon fruit, jicama, lychee, bok choy, feijoa, cherimoya, mango and papaya, she said.
Lately, Peruvian produce, including items such as cape gooseberries, cherimoya, pepino melon, fingerling potatoes, purple Peruvian potatoes and hybrid items such as eacotum - a cross between a peach, apricot and plum - have been finding their way into the produce departments, she said.
"Both Peruvian items and hybrids appeal to the customer's desire for variety, and some of the hybrids have an enhanced flavor profile as well as enhanced health benefits," Christie said.
Chris Stoll, ethnic produce buyer for Jungle Jim's International Market, the 300,000-square-foot Fairfield, Ohio, food mecca, credits the popularity of TV cooking shows featuring celebrity chefs like the Food Network's Emeril Lagasse with helping to broaden the culinary horizons of Americans. The TV shows have fueled a desire to try new foods including produce from other regions of the world. Hiring employees from a variety of ethnic groups who are familiar with the produce that comes from their native lands also helps drive sales at Jungle Jim's, he said.
Latino, African American and Asian American families "typically shop more often and spend about 20% more in a supermarket per week than Caucasians do," Stoll said. "They cook at home more and that plays a part in increasing sales in produce."
But as welcome as it is, the growth of exotic produce has also created an inventory management challenge for retailers. How do you tailor a store-level produce product mix so you have exactly the right amount of inventory on hand to meet demand? Retailers must strike a balance between having enough product to satisfy shoppers without going overboard and losing money on unsold merchandise.
Jungle Jim's, which caters to a virtual United Nations base of customers, carries hundreds of produce SKUs and has no problem turning its inventory with very little shrink. The store uses a potent combination of sophisticated marketing and advertising that creates demand for the produce. Merchandising strategies include massive displays of product. Tastings, cooking classes and free recipes trigger impulse purchasing. The retailer also benefits from carefully cultivated relationships with growers and shippers throughout the United States, the Caribbean, Mexico and Asia, and from software tools that include a proprietary application that helps the store's four produce buyers anticipate demand and manage inventories and sell-throughs.
Quincy, Mass.-based Stop & Shop Supermarkets, which operates more than 380 stores, relies on "data management tools integrated with logistic solutions to provide us with optimal buying scenarios that allow us to most efficiently utilize our distribution centers to effectively service our stores," said James Sturgis Jr., director of supply chain diversity. "The use of 'mixer trucks' is not an uncommon occurrence for us." Mixer trucks are filled with more than one item to maximize the return on the cost of transportation.
The key to merchandising produce to a diverse clientele is to have "variety, flexibility and creativity," said Maria Brous, spokeswoman for Lakeland, Fla.-based Publix Super Markets, which operates more than 800 stores in the Southeast. "We do not cookie-cutter mold our stores to all fit the same blueprint. Each store is evaluated on customer preference/demand."
Frieda's has become a marketing resource for many supermarkets carrying ethnic and exotic produce. The specialty produce company has created a password-protected area on its website where retailers can sign in and access nutritional information, recipes and full-color images of a wide variety of exotic produce. Many retailers use those tools to create point-of-purchase aids, fliers, recipe books and other materials for their customers, teaching them about exotic produce and offering recipes.
Frieda's also offers ongoing training classes for produce managers and for marketing and merchandising executives. Using Spectra data, Frieda's can identify the demographics within neighborhood markets, and once they've determined that a specific retailer has stores in those markets, they will work with that retailer to help them create an appropriate mix of fresh produce for those stores.
Some retailers cater to the growing consumer demand for variety to drive sell-throughs and maximize turns. Jungle Jim's typically purchases produce in large quantities, and, through aggressive promotion, the retailer can sell through pallets of merchandise in five days. Then the retailer repeats the cycle, making a point of providing customers access to unique items, keeping the produce aisles fresh and interesting, and putting out point-of-purchase aids to help customers become familiar with new products.
Jungle Jim also tries to maximize turns by tracking inventories and front-end sales daily. The retailer also records sales movements during key holidays like Cinco de Mayo, Chinese New Year and Ramadan, and keeps weekly notes, recording year-to-year seasonal circumstances, such as hurricanes, droughts or anything else that could impact supply and sales activity.
Stop & Shop "strives to service all the customers in the neighborhoods in which our stores reside," Sturgis said. "The key is knowing who that customer is. We have demographic data which tells us the population make-up around each of our stores. With that data, we can manage the items we carry in our stores to ensure that we are capable of satisfying the needs of the consumers that shop our stores.
"Additionally, we rely on our store management teams to provide feedback regarding their customers. Store management feedback helps us to manage our product offering. Our store managers view it as part of the job to get to know the neighborhoods around their stores as well as competitors in the area. Using this unofficial research helps us to ensure we are carrying those items our consumers desire. Finally, our consumer affairs line collects data from our consumers as well. All of this data is fed back to our buying teams who source the items that eventually make it to the store shelf."
Publix does all its produce purchasing at the headquarters level, but top officials are committed to having a wide variety of products to offer customers, Brous said.
"We rely on store associates to provide us with feedback regarding our customers' desires and requests," she said. "Each store has the ability to order the specific quantity of items needed based on customer demand. In addition, each store can merchandise the product differently. For instance, at Publix Sabor [the chain's Hispanic format] roots sell well," including yucca and malanga.
"There may be a large display of the roots and vegetables as you approach the produce section," Brous said. "However, in a traditional Publix location with less Hispanic influence, the roots may still be available, but merchandised on a smaller scale."
One of the key factors driving sales of produce in Stop & Shop's diverse markets is the ability of store personnel to understand the needs and desires of neighborhood shoppers, Sturgis said.
"We have access to data regarding the populations surrounding our stores that helps us to make decisions regarding not only the produce we carry but all the items we carry at our stores," he said.
Jungle Jim's Stoll said he and the other produce buyers "have the independence and the flexibility to do our own thing with produce. We have built a diverse ethnic base of customers. We have customers that are Spanish, Caribbean, African American, Mediterranean, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, Europeans, Canadian, Caucasians, but we don't order produce with only a specific ethnic group in mind.
"If we tried to limit ourselves to the mind-set of targeting individual groups, we would, in my opinion, lose out," Stoll continued. "We order the most seasonal produce at the most competitive prices we can find and we let customers taste and sample our produce. We provide recipes that they can use at home, and we provide information that describes produce that they may not be familiar with."
Stop & Shop, owned by Ahold USA, operates stores that typically service a more local clientele. As a result, the retailer often purchases produce in smaller quantities, making it possible "to keep our produce fresh but also reduce shrink due to spoilage," Sturgis said. "Luckily for us, we have a great logistics solutions team that has made it possible for us to purchase items, where necessary, in small quantities."