Asparagus Transcends Seasonality

Peruvian dasparagus display

Seasonality shouldn’t deter creative marketing and merchandising tactics.

Asparagus has transcended its seasonal reputation to become a year-long presence in the produce department. Publix Super Markets’ 1,114 stores have taken advantage of the added opportunities in the burgeoning asparagus segment. The stores carry traditional green asparagus as well as white and purple varieties, supporting sales through weekly ads and with recipes.

“We offer recipes for asparagus through Aprons Simple Meals, our in-store demonstration meal program where we prepare and sample the meal for customers,” says Maria Brous, director of media and community relations for the Lakeland, FL-based chain.

Recipe cards are available, and all items to recreate the meal at home are located in an adjacent kiosk. The recipes also are found online. “In addition, we offer secondary displays for asparagus and other produce fruits and vegetables on tables that are iced and have a filtration system,” says Brous.

Unfortunately, smaller supermarkets are not yet taking advantage of this vegetable’s year-round potential. For example, Priceville Foodland, an independent retailer in Decatur, AL, does not focus on asparagus merchandising, even during its peak months.

The same is true for Tom’s Foodland, a single-store operation in Freeburg, IL. Its asparagus is located in the cooking vegetable section, with the stalks in a pan of water and dips cross merchandised nearby.

“Prices during the off season are really high, and it’s hit or miss with supply,” says Ken Carol, the store’s manager. “We don’t do a lot of asparagus marketing, even during the spring.”

This points to the fact some retailers may be missing opportunities to drive sales with innovative merchandising strategies, marketing tactics and pairings with these products.

This is a burgeoning category. In 2014, the U.S. imported more than 486 million pounds of fresh-market asparagus of which Peruvian asparagus represented more than 42 percent of the total world supply, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Merchandising Strategies

Bundles of Asparagus

Although asparagus is promoted most frequently in the months of February through April, and again in October and November, there is a variety of promotional tactics to increase sales during non-peak times. These strategies include cross merchandising, educational point of sale materials that promote asparagus’ health benefits as well as large and creative displays.

Anticipating when a consumer will purchase, combined with product availability, is the key to a successful product flow strategy both during promoted and non-promoted time frames.

“With an item like asparagus, retailers tend to promote in bigger displays with larger quantities in order to create excitement,” says Joe Dugo, category manager at Robinson Fresh, based in Eden Prairie, MN. “It’s important to offer asparagus in bulk and bagged packaging as well as display-ready boxes in multiple value pack sizes in order to meet various price points at retail locations.”

In its Regional Retail Opinion Market Study, the Peruvian Asparagus Importers Association (PAIA) includes a number of promotion and advertising tips for retailers.

The report states that point-of-sale material is valuable for educating consumers on recipes, usage and the nutritional benefits of asparagus. To enhance visibility, asparagus can be displayed with other produce commodities, such as lemons, grapes or strawberries.

Incentive programs, including coupon development and in-store demos have proven not only to increase consumer awareness of this product, but also every day purchases, according to the PAIA.

In addition, cross merchandising can positively affect higher performance and yield of asparagus, reports the association. Pairing suggestions include salads, oils, dressings, deli meats and cheeses and wine.

“Retailers use POS materials, whether it’s in-store baseball card-size information that tells about the vegetable or its nutritional value,” says Jeff Friedman, president of Carb Americas, based in Fort Lauderdale, FL. “End cap promotions also are effective.”

Recipe cards are not as common, although some upscale stores utilize these to encourage increased sales. Peter A. Warren, import director at Pompano Beach, FL-based Ayco Farms, was instrumental in the first box of fresh green asparagus that came from Peru more than 30 years ago. Today, Peru exports 20 million cases to the U.S. annually. The company has a designated cooling facility built for Peruvian asparagus, where the vegetable is precooled and hydrated in less than an hour.

“People are afraid to cook asparagus, and don’t understand that it can be microwaved, boiled, steamed, fried, sautéed, baked, grilled or eaten raw,” says Warren. “This ease of preparation, along with its health benefits, is what will get new buyers to try asparagus.”

Rather than recipe cards, demos are most effective with this vegetable. In addition, it’s important to keep in mind that effective merchandising also is about perception.

Consequently, cross department merchandising with the meat and deli departments can go a long way. “With asparagus, you may have tuna steak, red meat or chicken breast in the meat section that will go with asparagus and béarnaise sauce with garlic roasted potatoes,” says Friedman. “As vendors and retailers become more educated, the consumers get more informed and people pay attention.”

Innovative packaging also has given this vegetable a boost. Los Angeles-based Gourmet Trading Co. is involved with asparagus bagging in 8-, 10- and 12-ounce sizes as well as 1- and 2-pound bags and offers private label programs as well as bi- and tri-color packs mixing green, white and purple asparagus. “In terms of the 1-pound bunches, everyone has access,” says Jan McDaniels, who handles Gourmet Trading’s sales. “Given the weather issues and complications with imports, the only way to differentiate this product is by price.”

The company offers point-of-sale recipe cards, along with cross-merchandising suggestions that are still evolving and include steak, mushrooms, sauces and seasonings.

Asparagus can be difficult to cross merchandise, given the need for refrigeration, but it also can be paired with garlic, limes and olive oil that are in a separate nearby display.

“Typically, asparagus is in a prominent spot,” says Bruce Klein, Maurice Auerbach’s director of marketing. “Even though white asparagus is not as strong a seller, many retailers will mix it with the green to break up the color.”

The company offers asparagus year-round, following the growing areas of Peru in winter, Mexico in spring, followed by California and Washington in summer.

Experts say retailers are fortunate now in that not only do they have the ability to merchandise green asparagus, but it’s possible to create displays with white and purple varieties to create more of a destination for consumers.

“The contrast in colors creates a lot of interest for the consumer and offers them variety within the asparagus category,” says Charlie Eagle, vice president of business development for Southern Specialties Inc., located in Pompano Beach, FL. In addition to higher end varieties, the company offers Southern Selects, a value-added asparagus. This includes 8-ounce microwavable asparagus tips, asparagus tenders in a steam pouch and larger club store format packs up to 2 pounds. Packaging provides nutritional information and preparation tips, while also extending the vegetable’s shelf life.

“We have recipes available on our website, rather than recipe cards,” says Eagle.

The company encourages retailers to incorporate asparagus in foodservice programs. One store offered a deli special that included white and green asparagus varieties.

“It is a good way to offer something new, because this allows customers to try both types of asparagus without having to buy substantial amounts,” says Eagle, who recommends cross-merchandising with Parmesan cheese, prosciutto or any grilling item.

Proper Displays

As with marketing and merchandising, displays are an important component to bringing added visibility to asparagus in produce departments.With asparagus, less is more on the shelf, especially if the store is not able to tend to the display or rotate the selection properly. “Asparagus bunches tend to get knocked as customers evaluate the ones to pick, which means the display needs to be closely monitored to avoid product loss,” says Robinson Fresh’s Dugo.

The PAIA recommends strategically displaying the category during peak and non-peak holidays, since well-positioned product will ensure increased visibility and sales. This could include standalone, pyramid and table displays as well as doubling space when asparagus is on ad. Including a variety of sizes, colors and packaging as well as different product forms, such as multiple SKUs sizes and colors, also is effective.

Highlighting nutritional benefits of fresh asparagus on brochures, signage and/or packaging will also attract a wider variety of customers. “[In terms of displays,] we need to think outside the box, since the current rules are not working,” says Warren. “This product needs to be kept cold and wet for optimum quality and shelf life.”

Proper care and handling is essential in terms of asparagus shelf life. It’s typical for retailers to stand bunches in icy water if the product is not bagged, which is effective.

“The advantage of bagged product is it adds an extra 10 days of shelf life,” says Gourmet Trading’s McDaniels. While some of Maurice Auerbach’s retail accounts put asparagus on ice in the middle of an aisle, others will include it in a large display with water to hydrate the product.

The company recommends this vegetable be held between 36 and 37 degrees F. Stems in this atmosphere don’t need to be kept wet.

“In fact, this could cause mold in some instances,” says Klein of Maurice Auerbach. Southern Specialties Inc. emphasizes that asparagus be merchandised vertically, not horizontally.

“In some stores, we’ve seen it laying sideways, but to best maintain the product’s integrity and for proper hydration, it should be standing straight up,” says Eagle of Southern Specialties. “Many retailers have island or end cap displays, which brings added attention to the product.”

Robinson Fresh offers a two-piece box where the tops lift off and the bottom can be used in, or as the display. If the bottom of the box is not used as the display, it still protects the asparagus bunches from damage when being removed.

Pricing Problems

One of the biggest issues with asparagus, and one that impacts sales, is seasonal pricing differences. Ayco Farms moves a lot of product when it’s priced between $1.99 and $3.99, but once it hits the $5.99 and higher benchmark in winter, this product is a tough sell.

“There’s typically more cost issues with white and purple asparagus, since these types are more expensive than green on a per pound basis,” says McDaniels of Gourmet Trading. “These varieties can be between 20 and 25 percent more in cost.” As a result of its seasonality, asparagus is considered a luxury item for many in the winter, when it is mainly being imported from Mexico.

By emphasizing pricing during peak season, like promotions of $2.29 or less, stores will move more product.

“Asparagus consumption is high, but it fluctuates so much in price that the majority of the year the retailer is confused,” says Friedman. “They wonder if there will be a limited supply, whether air freight is going up or whether growers will back the ads.” Because it’s really cost basis that dictates if stores are moving volume or not, most retailers now understand marketing asparagus and promoting it is more seasonal than it is year round because of price fluctuations.

While Thanksgiving is a good time to promote this vegetable, Christmas time is not. During February and early March, Mexico will be offering 28-pound boxes instead of 11. It behooves retailers to follow asparagus growing patterns and regions, which will help determine when to promote this product.

“With asparagus, it’s definitely difficult to deal with year-round merchandising,” says McDaniels. “The price difference is huge between domestic and imported product, and transportation and fumigation with imports raises prices.” As a result, no retailers can afford to operate on one price for 12 months, so some operate on monthly and two- to three-month pricing.

Even though a year-round approach can be difficult to accomplish, retailers can get creative despite the seasonal price fluctuations to keep asparagus in the spotlight 12 months a year.

Display Ideas from PAIA’s Regional Retail Opinion Market Study

  • Strategically displaying the category during peak and non-peak holidays will ensure consumers
  • Use stand-alone displays, pyramid and table displays as well as doubling displays when on ad.
  • Display different product forms, for example: multiple SKU’s, sizes and colors (green, white and purple) of fresh Peruvian asparagus to increase consumer purchase penetration and frequency of purchase.
  • Displaying white asparagus next to green and/or purple offers consumers with more choices and presents a contrasting, attractive and vibrant displays.
  • Highlighting nutritional benefits of fresh asparagus will attract a wide variety of customers by providing brochures and signage as to the health benefits of fresh asparagus.
  • Provide usage suggestions, recipe cards and handling/storage educational tools for the consumers.
  • Refrigerate and hydrate to maintain quality and longevity of shelf life.
*Merchandising Strategies Source: PAIA Regional Retail Opinion Market Study