Focusing on fundamental marketing helps stores capture more Peruvian asparagus sales.
Originally printed in the November 2023 issue of Produce Business.
Peruvian asparagus provides a dependable supply for consistent merchandising of this highly profitable category for most retailers.
“Peru continues to be a reliable region to source high-quality asparagus 52 weeks a year,” says Katiana Valdes, director of marketing and business development at Crystal Valley Foods in Miami, FL. “Asparagus continues to grow in popularity and merchandising it in highly visible, abundant displays can add a focus to this high ring veggie.”
In 2022, U.S. imports from Peru represented 214,040,196 pounds, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) statistics, with a value of over $248 million annually. According to The Peruvian Asparagus Importers Association’s (PAIA) 2022/2023 Fresh Asparagus Statistics, Category Trends and Demographics Report, Peru accounted for over 37% of fresh market asparagus imports to the United States in 2022.
“Peru provides year-round supply so retailers can consistently promote and boost sales,” says Priscilla Lleras, executive director for PAIA in Dallas, TX.
The category appeals to the sweet spot of regular consumers retailers wish to attract, explains Charlie Eagle, vice president of business development at Southern Specialties in Pompano Beach, FL.
“These are affluent, knowledgeable shoppers who enjoy purchasing fresh produce, premium meats and seafood, wines and other high-end purchases,” he says.
Concentrating on key merchandising areas increases shopper interest and drives sales. “Stores should strive for seamless, ample asparagus displays and promotion,” says Lleras. “Many households only purchase asparagus once or twice a year, so there is a huge opportunity to increase sales.”
Good merchandising captures the attention of shoppers and increases sales, agrees Mark Côté, regional produce supervisor at Redner’s Markets in Reading, PA, operating 44 stores.
“Attractive, well-organized displays lead to higher volume sales, especially during peak asparagus season,” he says. “This improves gross profit margins.”
Fall and early winter are considered the peak time for Peruvian asparagus since it’s springtime in Peru, according to Tim Ryan Jr., vice president of sales at Square One Farms in Sunrise, FL. “The holidays in November and December present opportunity,” he says.
“March and April are another big time of year for asparagus, and during the summer, asparagus can be a great commodity to promote for grilling with steaks and seafood,” Ryan adds.
Valdes, of Crystal Valley Foods, recommends promoting Peruvian asparagus from September through early December in many different ways, particularly in years when weather and supply are great.
“To help sell asparagus year-round, fresh, large displays in high-traffic areas are recommended,” she says. “Along with maintaining a fresh display of asparagus, retailers can also help promote the product by offering recipes online or on social platforms, demos, and cross-merchandising with other items in the store.”
Marc Goldman, produce director for 17-store Morton Williams Supermarkets in New York, NY, sees consistent sales throughout the year. “Any of the cooking holidays are good to promote asparagus, but it’s an all-year item now,” he says.
Visibility is crucial for asparagus sales. “When promoting asparagus, retailers are urged to highlight it with special displays to entice sales,” says Shani Nir, marketing for Ayco Farms in Pompano Beach, FL.
“Endcap displays or additional refrigerated display fixtures placed in high-traffic areas offer the best results,” Nir adds. “This provides a destination, thereby driving incremental sales and attracting new customers to the item.”
Having large, full displays or endcaps is best to showcase asparagus, agrees Ryan of Square One. “Asparagus should be under refrigeration or standing in a crushed ice display,” he says. “Island displays can be very effective when promoting aggressively and the product is not sitting out for longer periods of time.”
For Morton Williams, the size and type of display varies with the store format. “Sometimes we’ll make a big display when we can, but for other locations, our space is limited,” says Goldman. “The key for any display is to bring attention to it — if people see it, they buy. In some of our stores, we put smaller displays in the front to encourage purchases.”
TAKE CARE IN HANDLING
Stores are cautioned to ensure whatever display they’re creating still preserves the quality of the product. “We like to see asparagus displayed in the wet section of the coolers,” says Eagle of Southern Specialties. “Endcap displays out of refrigeration can be successful, but we suggest the produce manager is mindful of the amount of time the product is out of refrigeration. Maintain a temperature as close to 34 to 36 degrees as possible in a high humidity environment and don’t leave it out of refrigeration for an extended period of time.”
Goldman emphasizes ensuring asparagus bottoms are kept moist. “Keep them in a little water or ice,” he says. “The product stays fresher longer. If you put it out dry, the shelf life is not the same.”
Stores should ensure displays are well maintained, with only the freshest product. “Asparagus should be bright-looking, with closed, firm tips,” says PAIA’s Lleras. “The butt-end should be cleanly cut and sufficiently hydrated.”
Redner’s Côté explains the cleanliness and freshness of the displays can affect the sale even more than the price. “Ensure displays look fresh,” he says. “Shoppers won’t buy bad quality asparagus. Make sure you’re checking the display regularly, making sure it’s always fresh. Pull any product that looks bad. Pulled and reworked product can potentially be used in the salad bar, prepared food, or pre-cut section to help reduce shrink.”
Whether through color, size or packaging, options will increase asparagus sales, according to Lleras. “Peru offers a variety of sizes and colors that can be promoted for different uses,” she says. “Fresh asparagus is readily available in green, white and purple. Displaying value-added, bagged or tray-packed fresh asparagus will appeal to convenience customers.”
Options provide retailers more opportunities to meet the customers’ needs along with new ideas, agrees Nir. “Ayco has in-house packing for multiple options such as tray packs, flow packs and pouch bags,” she says.
Eagle says there has been good demand for Southern’s microwave-packaged asparagus. “These can be merchandised in the value-added section or near the bunched product,” he says.
Morton Williams offers white and purple asparagus, but Goldman reports it’s not a big seller. “We do package asparagus tips to capture the convenience shopper,” he says. “We make a higher margin with this, especially in Manhattan. Whatever we do to make it easier, people will pay more.”
Offering options in sizes can add to sales. “A few upscale retailers will offer XL and jumbo sizes to consumers who want to grill asparagus,” says Valdes of Crystal Valley.
Extra-large and jumbo can provide shoppers with a “premium” choice, suggests Ryan. “These are ideal for grilling and creating fine-dining meals at home for that special occasion,” he says. “Value-added has seen a nice bump in demand in recent years, as well as organic. Having multiple choices for every style of shopper is important.”
Educating shoppers will influence purchases. “Provide ideas on usage with signage, demos, or in-store communications,” says Lleras.
The digital age has made it easy and fun to get recipes into the hands of consumers, according to Valdes. “Social platforms such as Instagram and TikTok have opened a whole new world to recipe sharing,” she says. “Retailers can share asparagus recipes or usage ideas on their company platforms and collaborate with influencers or bloggers who come up with their own creative ideas. You never know when one of these recipes will go viral and inspire consumers to purchase asparagus, in turn having a direct effect on an increase in sales.”
Nir advises stores to understand their target audience and how they best communicate with the store when using social media. “For example, Millennials and Gen Z gravitate more toward Instagram, Twitter and TikTok,” she says. “While Boomers gravitate more toward Facebook and retail websites. Promoting on these platforms based on your audience is the best way to engage digitally. Creating fun, easy recipes will engage first-time buyers. Providing in-store sample demos is another perfect way to reach these customers.”
Offering background information on farms and production also provides additional linkage for shoppers. Eagle suggests using photos of harvest and facilities to educate. “This is helpful in showing consumers the high quality of the fields and facilities their product originates from,” he says.
PUSH HEALTH BENEFITS
Touting nutrition boosts asparagus marketability. “Today’s consumer is interested in the nutritional benefits of the foods they consume, and asparagus is a low-calorie nutrition powerhouse,” says Eagle.
Nutrition is more important than ever to shoppers, adds PAIA’s Lleras. “Asparagus contains a host of health benefits including low in calories; naturally fat-and cholesterol-free; good source of potassium, vitamin A and vitamin C; and rich in rutin and folacin,” she says. “Having signage promoting the nutritional benefits will make a ring difference.”
Ryan of Square One mentions the particular fiber and diet benefits of asparagus. “It’s a good source of fiber, vitamins and potassium and is also rich in antioxidants,” he says. “Being a good source of dietary fiber, asparagus keeps our stomach healthy and promotes a ‘fuller’ feeling which can result in weight loss.”
PAIR IT UP
Stores should combine asparagus with other products and departments for increased sales. “Cross-merchandising with complementary products will drive sales of both asparagus and increase the basket buy,” says Côté. “The meat department is the No. 1 distribution in the whole store, so ride its coattails with an additional asparagus display in the meat department. It will increase sales.”
Asparagus is often packaged with the meat and seafood department, according to Ryan. “This is a great way of catching the attention of different shoppers who may skip taking a trip through the produce department,” he says.
Asparagus is popularly prepared with lemons, meats and bacon, so Crystal Valley’s Valdes recommends pairing it in displays with these items.
“It’s also a favorite for spring and summer cookouts, parties, family gatherings and it is quickly becoming a holiday staple and can be cross-merchandised with meats and other grilling and holiday essentials,” she says. “Since it can be enjoyed in a crudité platter, it’s also beneficial to cross-merchandise asparagus with ranch and yogurt dips.”