Well-run demo programs can overcome customer misconceptions and provide a lasting boost to produce department sales
As tough economic times have worn on, many shoppers have been preparing more meals at home in an effort to save money. Combine that trend with the growth of the health and wellness movement during the past decade, and one would guess that the past few years have been a bonanza for retail produce departments.
But, produce departments may be taking too much for granted. Sure, everyone knows that healthy diets involve a lot of fruits and vegetables, but customers may be at a loss when looking for new meal ideas in this section of the store.
Ongoing research by Margaret Condrasky, an associate professor at Clemson University's Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, has indicated that demo programs can have a lasting impact on healthy eating habits. Together with Katherine Cason, state coordinator of South Carolina's Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program, Condrasky has published reports on culinary nutrition studies conducted in South Carolina supermarkets through a program called “What's Cooking?”
“The premise that we were investigating was, ‘Does the consumer have nutrition-related questions or cooking-related questions, or really, do they need both?’” Condrasky explained.
The answer? Many consumers want to eat healthier, but they really need guidance. They're concerned about how unfamiliar foods will taste, many mistakenly believe that produce is expensive, and they're concerned that they might waste too much food if they don't cook fresh produce immediately. Interactive demo programs, paired with supplementary materials such as recipe cards and brochures, can help address those concerns and create lasting changes in how a supermarket's customers approach the produce department.
“One of the main barriers is confidence in cooking,”
Condrasky explained. “So many of the customers [we've worked with] really weren't certain how to utilize kale or fresh carrots or canned beans. I think the idea of not being sure what it would taste like, or not feeling secure in their cooking skills was a barrier for some people.”
Condrasky noted that several easy-to-make, consumer-test-panel-approved healthy recipes were used in the program, including a kale soup. Although her group always notified produce department managers about the ingredients that would be used by the program each week, stores regularly ran out of kale during weeks that the soup was sampled.
“It's a good example that many of those customers wouldn't normally put that in their cart, but they'll buy that item if they sample a recipe that they like,” she said.
Also, while nutritionists are familiar with the common misconception that fresh produce is expensive, it may be that shoppers are simply concerned about waste. Loading a cart full of ingredients for a single recipe, and then not knowing what to do with the remainder of those fresh fruits and vegetables before they spoil actually is an expensive proposition for most shoppers. To address this problem, the “What's Cooking?” program focused on preparing a menu for an entire week, and trying to show participants how to think more like a chef.
Teaching shoppers “what to do with what's left. We found that to be a key part of what we did,” Condrasky said.
Many shoppers also expect healthy recipes to be bland and flavorless — another barrier that sampling can overcome.
“Even though there's an interest [in eating healthier], sometimes people are hesitant,” said Monica Amburn, registered dietitian for Mauldin, S.C.-based Bi-Lo. “They think, ‘OK, you've told me that it's better for me, and that it's not going to be expensive, but how is it going to taste?’ That's what it boils down to. They're worried that it's going to taste like cardboard.”
Amburn agreed that cost is also a concern, particularly during difficult economic times. Customers don't want to invest in the ingredients for an unfamiliar recipe when they're unsure of how it will taste.
“That's why sampling and demos are so important,” she said. “They help break through those misconceptions.”
Showing customers how to shop can be as important as showing them how to cook. Many may not realize that buying fresh produce can often be less expensive than buying processed foods, when items are purchased in season and are utilized properly.
For example, during the week before Thanksgiving, Amburn was featured on a local TV station, showing viewers how to cook a holiday dinner for six people for under $40.
“That included buying, instead of canned sweet potatoes, whole fresh sweet potatoes,” she said. “Even some of the produce I bought was organic, and I was still able to come in at under $40 for the entire meal.”
Produce growers and distributors should also be focused on addressing these misconceptions, and they should be aware that the growing ranks of nutritionists and dietitians in U.S. supermarkets present great opportunities for partnerships, one dietitian noted.
“I don't think most produce vendors realize the benefits of working with in-store dietitians,” noted Barbara Ruhs, registered dietitian for Bashas' in Chandler, Ariz. “They may not know that retail dietitians are out there, and that we can be a great asset.”
Dietitians can have a huge influence on shoppers in regional markets, Ruhs noted, since they often write columns for store circulars, or publish their own newsletters, which often highlight a specific commodity or brand. Yet, she said that many vendors still seem reluctant to participate in promotions or other health and wellness programs.
“If they're trying to develop sales in certain trade areas or regions, they should consider working directly with the corporate-level dietitians in retail chains.”
Ruhs asked members of a dietitian listserv for tips regarding successful in-store demos, and provided responses to SN from dietitians at two ShopRite retailers.
Meghan Locantora, registered dietitian for ShopRite of Medford, N.J., said that there are several key elements in a good demo. First, instead of calling them “demos,” it's better to come up with a fun, catchy name for a program that will draw shoppers' attention.
The programs also need to be interactive, “so shoppers aren't flying by, grabbing food samples and continuing along their merry way,” Locantora said. “I'll do this with an interactive quiz, flip chart or food model.”
And, there should be an educational component, she said. “If not, then we're really just sampling free food!”
For example, in early November, Locantora held a diabetes-focused event called “Cooking Live” in her ShopRite's in-store culinary workshop. Attendees sampled two different non-starchy vegetable dishes, and Locantora used visual aids to illustrate the “portion plate” method of meal planning.
“Recipes were given to customers, as well as other literature on diabetes and healthy eating,” she said. “While I cooked I answered questions and offered tips for meal planning and more recipe ideas.”
Locantora often works with the produce department to sample recipes that encourage shoppers “to step outside their ‘produce box’” and try items that they may not be familiar with.
“We've sampled items like winter squash, exotic fruits and certain leafy greens customers just don't know how to prepare at home. We've also had the opportunity to offer exotic fruit tastings for local schools during their lunch periods for National Nutrition Month this past March.”
In addition, ShopRite of Medford offers monthly children's cooking classes focused on different food groups, seasons and health topics. And, Locantora has reached out to other kid-friendly programs in the local community to spread the word about healthy eating.
“We've partnered with local libraries for ‘Snack Attacks!’ that include a quick and easy hands-on preparation of healthy snacking options during story time sessions. All cooking classes and Snack Attacks focus on produce,” she said.
At ShopRite of Parsippany and West Caldwell, N.J., registered dietitian Evelyn Minolfo works with the chefs in the store's catering department to prepare healthy dishes such as veggie stir fries, vegetable salads and side dishes, or fruit and vegetable smoothies at the demo kitchen station.
These demos are usually set up during lunch rush around 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. “when shoppers are hungry and looking for a quick snack on the go,” Minolfo said. With shoppers in a hurry, it helps to assemble all of the necessary ingredients for the recipe in one place, she noted. And, supplementary materials help shoppers remember how to prepare the item when they get home.
“I create a display of the produce and ingredients used in the recipe so shoppers know exactly what to buy so they can make the recipe at home,” she said. “I also create an educational handout with the recipe and nutritional facts and info on the produce items featured.”
The recipes often follow a theme. Blueberry smoothies might be featured during national blueberry month in July, for example, when the berries are in season, abundant and less expensive. A calendar of these events and demos is prepared beforehand and posted in each store, so that interested shoppers will know when to attend.
“One of the ways I measure success is to actually see how many of those items were purchased when the demo is over,” Minolfo said. “For example, I'll notice certain packaged herbs that were used in the recipe are almost sold out.”
And, in addition to boosting sales on items featured in the sampled recipe, demos also offer a great opportunity to meet and talk to customers, she added.
“Shoppers' reactions to this is excitement and appreciation that their store has dietitians working on the premises to provide nutrition education and counseling.”