NATIONAL CITY, Calif. -- An attempt to create the World's Largest Banana Display, featuring 87,360 pounds of Chiquita bananas, did what officials at a Foodland unit here hoped it would -- attract attention, create excitement and boost department sales.
Over the course of a week, customers were able to snatch up tens of thousands of pounds of specially priced bananas from the independent retailer's store in the latest effort by a supermarket to capture the record.
Priced at 99 cents for eight pounds, the fruit sold quickly at this 30,000-square-foot store outside San Diego. By the sixth day of the week-long promotion, the bananas were gone, according to officials.
Bananas, long-established as the top-selling produce item in supermarkets, normally account for about 3% of the store's sales in that department. The giant display "quadrupled our normal sales," said Steve Schindele, director of produce operations for Dallo Enterprises, the parent company operating the nine-store chain in San Diego County.
"The produce department for that store set a record after one week," he said, noting that 25,000 pounds of bananas were sold on the first day of the promotion alone, which was also a record for the retailer.
As part of the event's first day, Miss Chiquita passed out balloons and the store offered customers samples of banana cake. At the other stores in the chain, bananas sold at a slightly higher price -- six pounds for 99 cents.
The event helped raise the store's profile in a highly-competitive market, according to officials. Within a couple of miles of the National City location, Foodland competes with giants like Albertsons and Kroger-owned Food 4 Less -- as well as other independent grocers.
"It helps set us apart from the megastore," said Schindele. "We don't have any problem competing with them anyway, since we've always had a strong local reputation."
In recent years, independent supermarkets, aiming to strengthen their position in the marketplace and build a little publicity, have increasingly partnered with banana companies and produce wholesalers to sponsor unofficial "world's largest" competitions. Auchan Hypermarket in Houston teamed up with Chiquita in the summer of 1999 to sponsor a display featuring 48,000 pounds of bananas. A unit of H.E. Butt Grocery Co. saw foot traffic and sales both increase when it built a display of 42,880 pounds of Dole bananas at a store in San Antonio, also last year.
And the list goes on. Not to be outdone, Bag-N-Save Foods in Dover, Ohio then created its own banana spectacle, with about 60,000 pounds of fruit from Dole.
Stores are discovering the potential for "world's largest" promotions aren't limited to any single produce item. Auchan Hypermarket, bested last year in the banana race, used 60,000 pounds of potatoes to create two massive displays at its Houston store this summer. Officials said that promotion boosted produce sales 15%.
For this event, Foodland joined forces with Chiquita Banana North America, Cincinnati, and wholesaler American Produce to organize and set up the promotion, the first of its kind for the retailer.
About 10 workers rolled up their sleeves at 6:30 p.m. on the eve of the event and began the task of building a small mountain of fruit. The giant display featured three colors of bananas, each at a different stage of ripeness. Workers toiled until about 2:30 a.m., making sure the bananas were arranged just so.
The exhibit was built from the inside out, with the ripest fruit outside and the greenest bananas inside. To pace the ripening process for the stage-one fruit, bunches were arranged to accommodate airflow in and around them. The entire set-up took its toll on the workers, however.
"We were bleeding from the fingers," said Joe Kukuchi, tropicals department manager and a banana ripener for Los Angeles-based American Produce. "My back was hurting. It was much tougher than I thought it would be."
Huge though it was, Foodland's promotion isn't likely to mark the end of the quest for banana supremacy. Another independent supermarket company, interested in getting in on the game, has been in touch with Chiquita.
"At this point, it would be premature for me to say who it is," said David Lund, director of marketing for the company.