Produce executives told SN these perennial springtime favorites will be highlighted as the April and May holidays roll around.
Indeed, those two items now comprise the bulk of a promotional opportunity that not too long ago was much broader, retail produce merchandisers said, a clear sign of the changes being wrought in the department by the increased emphasis on worldwide, year-round sourcing of many commodities.
Tom Osborne, produce buyer at 23-unit Thrifty Foods, Burlington, Wash., said he will feature strawberries and asparagus in Thrifty's conventional and warehouse formats. One format will feature strawberries for Easter while the other will feature asparagus for the April 16 holiday. For Mother's Day, the emphasis will be flip-flopped.
"We're going to have the lushest, reddest strawberries and the best asparagus we can find," he added.
Osborne said he plans to cross-merchandise fresh strawberries in the produce department with angel food cake and shortcakes from the bakery. However, he added that he has toned down the extent of his strawberry cross-merchandising, compared with past promotions.
Osborne will, however, have his stores offer suggestions for preparing the other popular featured produce item for spring: asparagus. The units will run demonstrations for microwaving the vegetables.
Rice Food Markets, Houston, tries to feature artichokes and asparagus on ad every Easter, according to Hugh Williams, who recently retired as vice president and director of produce and floral operations at the 30-unit chain.
"We build big displays of them, on ice tables, so the asparagus and artichokes can draw water through the stems and stay fresher," he said.
Williams said Houston has a large Hispanic population, and nopalitos are a big item for the chain at Easter. He described nopalitos as cactus leaves with the thorns trimmed off. Some regional processors take out the seeds and offer them in value-added form, he said.
The 31 Big Y Foods stores, based in Springfield, Mass., offer asparagus at or below cost around Easter to drum up excitement for the holiday, said Russ MacLean, director of produce and floral.
Fred Romley, produce buyer and merchandiser at 68-unit Bashas' Markets, Chandler, Ariz., said Eastertime represents two different promotion opportunities for his stores.
Bashas' uses Easter and Mother's Day themes, but the season signifies another opportunity, with many winter residents of Arizona preparing to leave to return to their summer season homes.
"We always do something in the produce department for Easter," Romley said. "We also want to wish [the winter residents] farewell, and let them know they're welcome next year."
Although most retailers said Easter and Mother's Day are still important holidays for produce promotion, several agreed that the character of promotions continues to shift away from the first blush of spring availability.
High-quality imports and increasingly earlier domestic harvests now mean that consumers can count on having many fresh produce items well before March or April, they said.
Pat Quotson, produce buyer at Fred W. Albrecht Grocery Co., Akron, Ohio, which operates 19 supermarkets under the Acme banner, said he plans to concentrate more on the floral department than on fruits and vegetables.
"Quotson also said he doesn't start major strawberry promotions until after Mother's Day, to avoid what he called "the strawberry wars," where competing retailers promote the berries at or below cost.
"The focus has changed," said Thrifty Foods' Osborne. "A few years ago, March was called the new year for produce. The crops were out, the weather was enticing people outside.
"Now more crops are kicking off earlier. My first ad for asparagus broke the last week of February. Easter and Mother's Day promotions are pretty well into the program," he said.
Frank Gillespie, corporate produce director at Roundy's, Pewaukee, Wis., said overall Easter promotions won't be as effective this year as they were last year. "How successful Easter promotions are depends on when Easter falls," he said. "Last year it was in March, so the timing was good."
Gillespie said strawberries are a major commodity for the nearly 160 stores Roundy's supplies. Asparagus, on the other hand, is not as popular in the Midwest as it is in some other markets. "It's a cultural thing," he said.