As the temperature rises with the approach of the summer months, retail merchandising strategies in the produce department begin to heat up as well, and local farmers see an increase in demand for crops that go mostly unnoticed all winter, while shoppers search for refreshing flavors in the produce aisle to help keep themselves cool. According to retailers and others who spoke with SN, the summer produce shelves rely heavily on items that consumers associate with hot weather, local suppliers who can provide it and promotions that let the public know they're there.
Starting around Memorial Day, produce departments begin to generate advertising and create in-store displays to get consumers thinking about their summer produce needs and wants, and shelf space is cleared for oversized offerings of watermelon, stone fruit, strawberries and other refreshing summer items, industry insiders told SN. As summer draws near, sourcing and selling these items becomes a major focus for retailers, and season-specific trends begin to pop up all over the produce department.
"We have a pretty long summer here, so our produce department has a chance to do a lot of different things over the course of the season, but, as usual, the stone fruits will be leading the way," said Dave Bennett, co-owner of Mollie Stone's Markets, Mill Valley California.
Retailers, including Bennett, generally agreed that the hottest-selling summer produce items, year in and year out, are the stone fruits, such as peaches, plums, nectarines, and strawberries. The juicy, sweet taste of these foods provides flavor and refreshment during the warm weather, which keeps shoppers coming back for more, said Bennett.
Mollie Stone's Markets, with large produce departments comprising up to 30% of some stores, sources summer produce according to quality, and where possible, forms buying alliances with local growers, but not exclusively.
"We buy off the market and direct, and do tend to stay somewhat local, but most important is getting a good product for our shoppers, which means size and sweetness come first when we source produce in the summer, regardless of where it comes from," said Bennett.
Bennett added that many farmers are anxious to team up with retailers come summer time in order to develop store-direct routes for their crops. To that end, Mollie Stone's tries to keep its local growers and suppliers happy and in the red during the long California summer, either one-on-one, or through its long-running partnership with the San Francisco Produce Market.
Marketing summer produce at Mollie Stone's, though never a tough sell, involves in-season ads in circulars and local papers, as well as in-store demos and cross merchandising, said Bennett. Pies are often sold that were made in-store from fresh summer produce, and displayed within the produce department as part of the seasonal selection. Outdoor displays are most popular for showcasing summer produce at Mollie Stone's, and will play a big part in the store's upcoming summer push of kiwi fruit, with heavy sampling and in-store demos. Bennett described the kiwi promotion as an unusual sell, but perfect for summer shoppers.
Also on the West coast, PCC Natural Markets, Seattle, sees a summer produce boon in its all-natural, heavily organic retail locations. Tim Johnson, produce manager for the Ravenna PCC location, said the locally grown aspect of his produce SKUs is a huge part of summer sales, with a large base of loyal customers who are emphatic about buying from neighborhood growers.
"Come summer time, I'd say about 70% of my produce is from local farmers, since we have several farms that are only 10 to 15 miles from here," he said. "And most of them deliver seven days a week."
According to Johnson, all leaf lettuce, greens, berries and root crops that PCC sells during the summer are from local growers, and up to 73% of those items in his particular unit are organic during the period, to boot, he said.
Though PCC strives to source from local farmers, Johnson added the store is dedicated to selling "the best possible product." The retailer uses a third-party firm to examine the local crops for premium sourcing of top-grade produce.
"Being as close as they are to our store, we even have some farmers who come in and tell us what they have that's good, and what's not so good," said Johnson. "It's a pretty productive and profitable relationship, for both parties, and has worked well for us for a long time."
PCC's produce prices, even for locally grown products, are kept comparative with commercial prices in the area, said Johnson, with various berries remaining a consistent best seller during the summer months.
Though PCC does not emphasize cross-merchandising much of its summer produce with commercial items -- instead focusing on the organic and all-natural status of its products -- Johnson said they do bake an organic shortbread in-store that is often paired with locally grown strawberries and other berries. The store's 900-square-foot produce department utilizes outdoor displays as well during the warm weather months, with bins and slant racks showing off the newest offerings in front of the store each day.
PCC's cross merchandising, which brings berries to the forefront, should prove to be a profitable endeavor, since the fruits remain the most popular summer produce item each year. According to Ray Klocke, president of The Klocke Advantage, an Alamo, Calif.-based consulting firm, summer produce sales can be a real boost to a retailer.
"In the business, we simply refer to summer as 'the produce time of year,"' said Klocke, who added that up to 30% of all produce sales tend to be made during the summer months.
In St. Charles, Ill., fruit sales at Blue Goose Supermarket are augmented by a locally grown crop that is also a summer-time favorite, and a staple of the farm belt that runs through the region.
"We sell a huge amount of sweet corn in the summer, and it all comes from one local farmer who has been providing it to us for years and years," said Bill Misner, produce manager for Blue Goose.
As another operator who takes advantage of the strong demand for locally grown produce, Blue Goose invests significantly in developing regional contacts which allow the retailer to sell various vegetables and fruits during the summer, but it's the sweet corn that keeps them coming back for more, said Misner.
Though the unit's produce department, at 3,000 square feet, is relatively small compared to major chains, Misner said its location at the front of the store makes it the first thing consumers see when entering the 22,000-square-foot supermarket. An outdoor display greets shoppers with a display table of varied local produce, and several European-style tables inside offer the rest of the goods, including the heralded sweet corn.
"I know it doesn't sound like the most refreshing summer dish, but the sweet corn is huge, absolutely huge, and we sell amazing amounts of it," said Misner.
To promote its summer produce, Blue Goose uses extensive in-store signage, including pictures of the local farmers themselves that hang in the produce department as a way of illustrating how Blue Goose and local growers "work hand-in-hand" during the summer months, said Misner. "Home Pride Days" are scattered throughout the season as well, when store employees use games and displays to highlight the availability of their local produce.
As the major summer seller in the produce department, sweet corn is heavily cross-merchandised with other items, such as butter and corn skewers, to spread the demand for the seasonal fare, he said.