SAN DIEGO -- In sunny California, produce is top banana in the retail jungle, and nowhere is this more evident than here in the Golden State's southernmost city, where retailers must maintain a strong department of consistency and variety to meet the demands of health-conscious shoppers.
As a leading domestic produce source, California hosts plenty of consumer options in the form of whole-food stores, organic markets and other niche retail outlets. Smart chain operators know that to stand out as a produce destination, they have to be on the ball.
A recent tour of two stores operated by a pair of the state's leading supermarket chains, arranged for attendees of the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association's annual Exposition and Convention, clearly demonstrated a commitment to the produce department as a critical link in their respective business plans.
Most noticeable is the straightforwardness of the departments, from the shopping pattern to the item presentation. Both retailers stressed cleanliness, selection and quality without frills or clever merchandising schemes.
The 45,000-square-foot Vons Pavilion unit in La Jolla, just north of San Diego on Interstate 5, is an original Safeway store that operated as a Vons for several years before a complete remodeling in July 1998, which nearly doubled the size of the store. Paul Vienna, recently appointed the unit's produce merchandiser, estimates that the produce department comprises about one-quarter of the store.
Because of the smaller footprint, the layout is simple, stressing variety in a subdivided aisle lined with refrigerated cases and further divided by bins and island cases at regular intervals.
The produce section in this Vons is atypical of the signature "maze" pattern that shoppers usually encounter, according to Vienna.
"Usually, [the section] is about 10 to 15 feet wider," he said. "They usually feature a maze, with tables that customers have to shop around. It opens up more buying areas."
The produce department lies between the main entrance to the left and a right-front corner entrance.
In the aisle proper, the left-side linear case displays 16 feet of prepared brand-name salads in the form of mixed greens and salad kits, all of which are organized according to categories clearly marked at the top of the case: kits, fat-free, specialty blend or classic. The items are accompanied by dressings, sprouts, fresh-cut options, and a compartmentalized display of eight varieties of loose mushrooms merchandised in Plexiglas bins.
Though the display was small, there was a wide variety, and prices ranged from baby loose mushrooms at $2.29 a pound to golden Chantrells at $37.99 a pound.
Organic staples -- lettuce, broccoli, carrots -- capture only 8 feet of space in the next case, but it is enough for the shoppers who want them, said Vienna. The section used to measure 12 feet, but it was reduced just last month to make way for specialty items that are also in demand, such as small purple tomatoes, baby pineapple and yellow wax beans. Like the mushrooms, the specialty produce is merchandised in Plexiglas bins.
"We do it this way because the price is usually higher on these items, and not everybody wants it. We have a small clientele for it, so this would be enough," said Vienna.
Still, demand for these type of specialty goods is growing all the time in this area of the state, and the bin display can easily be expanded, he added.
Organic foods are indeed a regional staple, it seems. Just outside the store's parking lot and up the street, SN observed a local institution, the House of Natural Foods, which promoted its organic produce selection in large lettering on the front of the store.
At Vons, the in-line cases along the right side of the department start off with a selection of fresh herb bouquets and packages. Farther down is a set of 16 specialty peppers, such as the fiery habanero, papery tomatillo and dried pasilla, complemented with their more common green, yellow and red cousins.
"As the summer goes on, we get all different kinds, and colors, with different degrees of heat," noted Vienna. "They're always tied in with the regular varieties of garden peppers."
Dividing both sides is a series of fixed dry and refrigerated island cases holding the rest of the department's offerings. The island case in particular serves as a palette on which the store's artistic cut fruit and salads are displayed. All the work is performed by a single produce associate who takes products into the back of the store to a work area with a cutting block, scale and wrapper.
In-case, papayas are halved and filled with grapes and strawberries; cut melon is available in single or multiserve sizes. Vons-label European Spring Salad mix is hand-selected and packed, though the 10 Way Health Salad is actually sourced from a brand-name manufacturer.
Other items, like precut vegetable platters, share the space with hummus and tabouli. Strawberry shortcake is made with cakes sourced from outside, whipped cream made in the store's bakery, and completed with the produce department's strawberries and blueberries. All these items are merchandised together because they are customer favorites, and always in demand, according to Vienna.
"They want quality. They don't look at the price. And it better be fresh, because if it's not they know they can go somewhere else and they won't be back," he said.
Floral is also a component of the produce department, and also falls under Vienna's responsibility. A full-time floral consultant is employed during regular business hours to work on special projects, including the creation of fruit baskets.
The Ralphs store in the Highlands Town Center Mall in nearby Del Mar, Calif., also measures 45,000 square feet. It is a standard-format store, nearly 10 years old, but customer demand has made this particular unit the top produce performer chainwide, when measured in terms of percentage of sales. This distinction is made all the more impressive by the fact that the produce department comprises only 10% of the total square footage.
"[This store] carries more than 500 produce items at any one time," said Jim Keisling, produce merchandiser. "That doesn't include any of the dry goods, just the fresh."
The diverse customer base that patronizes the store includes families, single homeowners and people of many ethnic backgrounds. To accommodate the volume of produce-minded shoppers in this relatively small area, the store installed multideck refrigerated cases that allowed it to throw out some of the dry tables that cluttered the shopping pattern.
"Since we added the multidecks, it's helped a great deal," he said. "Prior to this, tables were non-refrigerated and we used only a single-deck case. This is a busy store, so we didn't want a lot of stuff sitting in the aisles."
The produce department is located inside the main entrance, and fills the left front corner. On the day of SN's tour, a sampler distributed small cups of fresh juices that could be found in the value-added produce case. Roughly 30 feet of multitiered refrigerated space was filled with branded bag salad mixes, party trays of precut vegetables and fruit, and sliced and loose mushrooms.
An adjacent unit was filled with tomatoes of different origins, sizes and shapes. The Ralphs specialty section in the case included pepino mini melons for $1.99 a pound, cherimoya at $3.99 a pound and cocktail avocados at $7.99 a pound.
Providing this level of variety in such a small area is a constant challenge to the store, given the volume of green goods that move through the checkout, according to Keisling.
"We want to sell everything, so we try to allocate space for every commodity," he said. "The root category has gone crazy over the past few years. We used to have a 16-foot, five-deck [case] for our packaged salads. We've gone to 24 feet. We used to have an 8-foot tomato case that went to 12 feet. And the organic business is really picking up."
Here, organics secure 8 feet of space, differentiated from their casemates by shelf liners imprinted with the term. The selection is more varied than Vons' 8-foot section, which consisted of commodity items. At Ralphs, shoppers will find branded mixed greens in addition to the staples. Herbs are sold in bouquet bunches and in packs next to the organic selections.
The store faces competition in the organics arena from Jimbo's, located in the same shopping center; mainstream competition comes from a Vons around the corner and an Albertson's down the street, according to Keisling.
The dry tables hold apples, grapes and melons, as well as onions and potatoes. Underneath, shelves hold produce-related dips, marinated artichoke hearts, croutons, shelf-stable pesto and nuts, among other things.
The store's floral department is just a step outside the produce section, inset in the perimeter wall. A shelf island across the aisle holds a number of gift wraps, bags and party accessories such as napkins and plates.