As supermarket produce departments struggle to compete with other areas of the store for the time-starved snack seeker, a potent new weapon is emerging in the form of dried fruit.
Long defined by the ho-hum raisin and the comedic prune, dried fruit is increasingly coming out of the shadows of the grocery center aisle and into the bright lights of the produce department, becoming a lot hipper in the process. Though hardly a new concept, dried fruit is enjoying a rebirth as new life is pumped into a stale category via an array of new and different products, improved packaging and more savvy marketing.
All that adds up to strong growth in the broad dried fruit category. Recent Information Resources Inc. data showed food/drug/mass dried fruit sales increasing at a double-digit clip.
"It's growing, and getting bigger all the time," said Bill Romley, vice president and produce director at Bashas' Supermarkets, a Phoenix-based chain of 137 stores. "The product has gotten much better and the packaging is a lot more attractive, and while we still merchandise in a mix of both grocery and produce, we're finding that the more exotic things really belong, and do well, in the produce department."
Ed Odron, a retail veteran and president of Produce Marketing Services, Stockton, Calif., said more retailers are opening up the produce department to dried fruit because it's a natural tie-in with fresh produce, and gives the department even more relevance with respect to consumer shopping trends.
"It's a good fit for produce compared to many other non-fresh items because it's an obvious extension of fresh fruit, and also because it's a great grab-and-go item," Odron said. "Many retailers are finding that their success in moving the category has increased when displays are moved to produce after years of being a grocery item."
While many retailers continue to maintain dual sets in both grocery and produce, dried fruit suppliers are lobbying for the produce department.
"We definitely see stronger sales in produce -- up to 50% improvement," said Steve Riccardelli, vice president of North American marketing for Sunsweet Growers Inc., a Yuba City, Calif., supplier of a growing line of dried fruit products. "It's mostly because of the traffic that produce generates, but also because that's where shoppers are in the mode of looking for healthy foods and snack items. With dried fruit, you're essentially getting a piece of fruit with the same nutritional benefits, yet in a much more convenient form."
Sunsweet, long a leader in category stalwart prunes (known now as dried plums) and apricots, has been busy expanding its dried fruit lineup. Starting with a move to spice up the dried plum line by offering flavored versions, Sunsweet has been moving rapidly to roll out products like mixes of tropical fruits containing dried mangoes, pineapple, papaya and coconut. Additionally, Riccardelli said the company has addressed the convenience aspect by introducing a snack-size pack for its regular and cherry-essence dried plums. Each 0.9-ounce pack contains three plums.
Sun-Maid Growers of California, Kingsburg, Calif., a leading raisin marketer, also is adding to its dried fruit lineup. An equally important mission, said Marketing Director Rob Muller, has been to develop new floor merchandisers for its products that can be easily placed in the produce department.
Given the premium on shelf space, supplying floor shippers is a preferred option. Yet, Riccardelli added that some retailers have had success building their own large dried fruit displays.
"In the Northeast, where we move a lot of our products, we'll see accounts like A&P stack dozens of cases up in a big display, often using slanted racks typically used for merchandising fresh produce," Riccardelli said. "It's a position in the department that consumers can't miss."
Muller said some of Sun-Maid's accounts have had success merchandising dried fruit on shelving on the edge of the produce department.
Odron said dried fruit sales also can be boosted by merely positioning products near high-traffic areas where shoppers congregate, such as the main banana display. The packaged salad section also can be an ideal spot for suggestive selling relating to salad garnishes.
Regardless of where the product is positioned in produce, dried fruit's recent growth may enable it to stake a more legitimate claim to the department than just a "non-fresh" item, Odron said.
"It makes for a nice fit, and adds to the sales and profits of the department at the same time," he said.