Local foods and seasonal foods go hand in hand. As farmers' markets grow in popularity and retailers are expanding their offerings to include produce from local farms, highlighting seasonal produce and its benefits can add another degree of authenticity for customers.
“Seasonal is more popular now and the better retailers are responding to the seasonal trend,” said Shelly Balanko, vice president of ethnographic research at The Hartman Group, Bellevue, Wash.
“They're providing more newsletters and recipes at point of sale to encourage consumers to buy the seasonal produce and help them to understand how to integrate it into maybe some more traditional dishes — give it sort of a seasonal flare, change it up a little bit, incorporate some variety and also take advantage of the bounty that comes with purchasing things in season.”
Farmers' markets are great for this, Balanko added, noting that consumers often talk about farmers' markets as a place that helps them put in perspective which vegetables, fruits and greens are in season and which are not.
“When you go to your local grocery store, everything's available,” she said. “You go to the farmers' market, and you'll see fluctuations over the months that the farmers' markets are open.”
Publix Super Markets has an “At Season's Peak” campaign at its stores. And the company hosts a separate website, atseasonspeak.publix.com, featuring recipes and short articles explaining when many popular items are in season.
“Every fruit and vegetable has its own special time of year when it just tastes better — juicier, sweeter,” explained Maria Brous, spokeswoman for the Lakeland, Fla.-based retailer.
“Our At Season's Peak campaign, currently in its third year, is when we partner with the most reputable growers in order to deliver fruits and vegetables to our customers at the height of their flavor.”
The campaign highlights different fruits and vegetables throughout the year. Depending on the season, the produce won't necessarily be local, but may come from farther away.
“In short, yes, some produce is grown locally, such as our Plant City strawberries. However, we also feature Washington apples as part of the At Season's Peak promotion,” Brous explained. “Not all produce is grown regionally, so we work with our suppliers to identify where our produce can come from during different times of the year.”
Publix promotes At Season's Peak fruit and vegetables through in-store signage, billboards, radio and TV spots, in addition to highlighting the savings in its ad.
“We further create awareness by providing customers with recipes,” Brous said.
“Customers want fresh produce year-round. In a tough economy, customers are looking for the best value and quality. At Season's Peak matches the quality and value. It's a win for our customers.”
Balanko also noted that there's an economic benefit to buying produce in season. It's more likely to be in abundance than non-seasonal produce that is shipped from other parts of the world.
“You'll hear consumers say they love cherries and they get them all year but they're $8 a pound in the winter and now they're getting them for $2,” she said. “Especially in this economy, consumers are noticing price. They may not always be buying what's cheapest, but they do know that seasonal is more economical.”
Joe Hardiman, produce merchandiser for PCC Natural Markets, Seattle, said that promoting seasonal produce is at the heart of what the co-op does for its members and other shoppers.
“Interest in seasonal produce is growing as more mainstream shoppers are getting a better sense of the benefits of buying local such as taste, freshness and supporting our local economy,” Hardiman said.
“We have daily delivery of a lot of our seasonal produce, so we definitely promote freshness. We offer great value on our seasonal produce. We price it fairly, keeping our customers in mind, yet making certain our local growers cover their production costs.”
While PCC shoppers tend to be aware of the benefits of seasonal produce, Hardiman said, PCC adds to their knowledge with in-store signage; information on register screens; information on its website; and articles in its advertising circulars, e-newsletter and monthly newspaper. PCC is also running a radio campaign that emphasizes fresh, local and organic, and highlights its favored farmers.
Some analysts believe that the combination of value, freshness and flavor will continue to drive the growth of the seasonal eating trend, possibly at the expense of organics.
“Mintel's ‘Organic Food — U.S., October 2008’ report originally forecast the organic food market to grow some 14.3% in 2008. Now, in light of the current economic recession, we have revised that estimate down to 12.1% growth. The loss for organic sales could very well result in increased sales for local produce as consumers trade over to find the lowest prices,” noted Mintel International's “Local Procurement — U.S., February 2009 report.”
Balanko of the Hartman Group, agreed that in addition to the appeal of lower prices, she believes the seasonal eating trend resonates with consumers who are interested in having “authentic” foods, and who view eating foods that are in season as more environmentally conscious.
“I would say that there are some consumers who are consuming seasonal produce out of an interest in sustainability,” she said. “There's less need to force [fruits and vegetables] into growing with fertilizers or extra expenditures of energy and the like to get those foods to produce when they really shouldn't be. So, there are some consumers who are interested in seasonal [produce] for health and wellness reasons, for foodie gourmet taste reasons, and then there are those for environmental benefit reasons.
“The fact that they're cheaper is a nice bonus.”