Produce executives reported sunny results overall from their Easter promotions, despite the lingering effects from California flooding that dampened sales on some items.
Initial worries about the quality and quantity of strawberries proved unfounded, as retailers reported highly successful strawberry promotions this Easter.
While one grocery wholesaler said he did encounter supply gaps for strawberries, for the most part merchandisers reported no problems with either quality or quantity of the commodity.
Teresa Thorne, communications director for the California Strawberry Commission, Watsonville, Calif., said that after the flood-related disruptions in early April, strawberries have been in plentiful supply.
For the week of Easter, 3.2 million trays of strawberries were shipped out of California, down slightly from 1994's record shipment of 3.6 million during the same period last year.
Supply and high retails for lettuce, broccoli and cauliflower were a continuing headache for retailers, however. They told SN they had to scramble to offer shoppers some alternatives for Easter. Those alternatives ranged from value-added salads, to miniature whole peeled carrots, to apples.
Clark Wood, corporate produce specialist for Associated Food Stores in Salt Lake City, which services 750 independents, said it appeared sales were up in each division over last year.
Those gains came despite supply gaps of strawberries. "We were running into substantial supply-side kind of problems for Easter," Wood said. "We were loads short." Strawberries were a big item for promotions, he added.
Some stores offered strawberries at a loss, but they made up for it in other areas. One of Associated's five divisions, for example, promoted strawberries for $2.99 a half flat and $5.98 for a full flat;
"It worked out very successfully," Wood said. As a way to boost profits, the division promoted coleslaw, rather than the more expensive salads, he added.
Another Associated division tied in miniature carrots to the Easter theme as an alternative to candy. The division also promoted apples and potatoes as an alternative to lettuce, he said.
"There's only one word to say about our sales for Easter -- phenomenal, " said Mark Luchak, director of produce and floral for 30-unit Rice Food Markets, Houston. "It was mainly due to strawberries."
Luchak said he probably tripled the volume of strawberries he usually moves, and still had no problems with supply or quality of the berries.
"I even had customers call me and compliment me on the quality," he said. "That's amazing." Rice put a special emphasis on strawberries by offering different purchase options, including bulk, 1-pound packages of stemmed strawberries and chocolate dip strawberries in gift packs.
"We had a display for every type we sold," he said. "We really promoted the strawberries as almost a category by itself."
Sales were probably up over 20% from last year for James Ferrera and Sons, Canton, Mass., said Bill Cavicchi, produce buyer. The company supplies about 60 stores and operates five corporately owned units, he said.
Strawberries were a strong seller. "We heavily promoted California strawberries, which increased our sales," he said. He said he avoided promoting lettuce and asparagus. Lettuce prices were creeping up again immediately after Easter, and asparagus was hard to get, he added.
Sales at the 13 units in the Georgia division of Cub Food Stores, based in Lithia Springs, Ga., were up approximately 10% to 15% over last year, according to Ken Lanhardt, director of produce and floral.
"We still had the high lettuce market from California, which always affects things," he said. "There were enough other items to make up for it."
Shari Steinbach, consumer and public affairs supervisor at wholesaler Spartan Stores, Grand Rapids, Mich., said the flooding is still having palpable effects on sales of certain items.
According to the most recent damage estimates from the California Department of Food and Agriculture, released March 30, statewide crop damage from the flooding was $666 million. Strawberries sustained $63.1 million in damages, lettuce $40.6 million, broccoli $15.5 million and cauliflower $10.6 million.
Steinbach said cauliflower and broccoli sales for Spartan were down about 30% from the year before, and high prices and limited qualities still plagued head lettuce.
However, strong sales of potatoes, strawberries and asparagus helped boost overall sales 6.3% over last year, she said.
Ralph Kelley, produce manager for Westward Ho Markets in Los Angeles, which operates five upscale units, said he tried to keep prices down for lettuce, which helped sales particularly for popular salad bar items.
"We haven't raised the price on that at all during this time," he said. "It's still $3.49 per pound, which is really reasonable right now. We just decided to absorb the costs."