Consumers discovering new uses and the advantages of cooking with fresh over dried.
Fresh herbs are some of mankind’s oldest ingredients. In fact, research shows that our caveman ancestors spiced up their diets with these culinary condiments.
Yet, herbs are one of the youngest categories in the produce department, according to Chick Goodman. The Soquel, CA-based vice president of sales and marketing for the Herbs Unlimited Group, a division of Coosemans Worldwide Inc., says fresh herbs at retail didn’t started trending until the early 2000s, when home cooks hooked on food TV decided they wanted to put meals on the table that were fast, fresh and flavorful.
Since then, Goodman explains, fresh herbs have grown from less than 1% of produce dollar sales nearly two decades ago to as much as 3% in stores that tick all the right merchandising boxes. Most importantly is the huge opportunity ahead, Goodman forecasts. That is, the next wave of shoppers, Gen Z and the youngest Millennials, are the first to have grown up on fresh, rather than the dried herbs bought by their Gen X and Boomer parents.
“Some shoppers’ first inclinations may still be to reach for dry, until they try the fresh,” says Marc Goldman, produce director at Morton Williams Supermarkets, a 16-store chain based in the Bronx, NY. “We do really well with fresh herbs.”
Today, there are three key drivers of fresh herb sales at retail.
“First, consumers are more open to experimenting with their cooking,” says Nadine Williams, director of marketing for Shenandoah Growers, Inc., in Harrisonburg, VA. “Second, consumers are open to more sophisticated tastes, fueled by the growing popularity of ethnic foods and the growing diversity of the U.S. population. Fresh herbs are a staple ingredient across the globe, so consumers are discovering new ways to use this product in their daily cooking. Third, consumers today are more concerned about healthy eating options. Fresh herbs provide a bright burst of flavor that kicks up any dish, while still offering a nutritious option. Consumers are taking advantage of that. We conducted research last year that found more than half of consumers (52 percent) purchased fresh herbs in 2018. It’s a fast-growing category for these reasons.”
The best ways to turn challenges into profitable opportunities to sell more fresh herbs are to tackle the topics of variety, packaging, education and promotions.
HERB VARIETY AND THE RIGHT BALANCE
Basil is the king, but far from the only player in the herb kingdom.
“Typically, a retailer may only offer basil. Or, some offer the top five. Or, some offer a full line, but only over the holiday season,” says Robert Schueller, director of public relations for Melissa’s/World Variety Produce, a specialty supplier based in Vernon, CA. “Instead, the top eight should be displayed year-round, with peaks on specific varieties during specific seasons. For us, not including commodity herbs like parsley, cilantro and baby arugula that sell in volume at stores, the top eight in descending order are: basil, chives, mint, rosemary, dill, thyme, sage and methi leaves (also called fenugreek). While basil has been at the top of this listing for decades, methi leaves have only moved to the top about four years ago.”
Thai basil first found favor in ethnic markets, according to Herbs Unlimited’s Goodman. “Four years ago, national chains picked it up, and now it’s a top 15 item. Tarragon is growing, too, and ranks at 9 or 10 of the top 10-selling herbs at retail, because of its use in making Bearnaise sauce.”
In addition to offering the most-popular herbs, companies such as Jacobs Farm/Del Cabo, in Pescadero, CA, grow niche varieties to cater to an ever-growing diversity of palettes. “This includes epazote, Makrut lime leaf, lemongrass, marjoram and sorrel,” says Wylie Bird, marketing coordinator. “Having this variety sets us apart and can bring retailers to us.”
Fresh herb growers were some of the first to go big into organics since the category itself, at its start, wasn’t big enough for both organic and conventional SKUs, according to Herbs Unlimited’s Goodman.
“Between 2006-2008, most herb growers went organic because conventional shoppers will buy organic if it isn’t too expensive, but organic buyers won’t purchase conventional,” he says. “Also, retailers who wanted to advertise the number of organic SKUs available in the department found that number would really jump when you added herbs. However, these days, with the growth of the fresh herb category, some say there is a role for both organic and conventional on the shelf. Top retailers carry both.”
In addition to single fresh herbs, offering enough variety also means carrying an assortment of products, including fresh mixes, lightly dried, stir-in pastes and crystals.
“We’ve had success in selling a 4-ounce fresh herb blend of thyme, sage and rosemary for Thanksgiving,” says Jeff Fairchild, produce director at New Seasons Markets, a 21-store chain headquartered in Portland, OR.
Growth in value-added mixed packs is driven by consumers’ desire for convenience, says Jacob Farms/Del Cabo’s Bird. “Instead of buying aromatics individually, the mix packs allow consumers to get everything they need in a compact ¾-ounce clamshell; it is recipe ready. To convey this quickly at shelf-level, we include recipes on pack and suggest cross merchandising with complementary products. In addition, the names of our mixes (i.e. Poultry Mix, Pasta Mix, Seafood Mix, etc.) give hints to the customer as to how they can be used.”
Stir-in herb purees are another value-added time-saver. In March, Shenandoah Growers introduced its eight-item line under its That’s Tasty brand. Made with organic ingredients, the line includes garlic, ginger, spicy harissa, sun-dried tomato, Italian herbs, parsley, basil and dill. Each features the main ingredient, plus organic sunflower oil and organic olive oil.
In June, Gourmet Garden, a manufacturer of chilled convenience packaged herbs and a brand owned by McCormick & Company, Inc., headquartered in Sparks, MD, introduced its new Lightly Dried Pouches in three varieties: basil, cilantro and parsley. The pouches offer a new size with a lower price point to encourage trial in comparison with the current bowl packaging.
“Lightly dried herbs are simply a bunch of fresh herbs that have been lightly dried to remain fresh for four weeks once opened and stored in the refrigerator,” says Udyan Khanna, general manager for Gourmet Garden North America, whose offices are in Hunt Valley, MD. “Because it is only lightly dried, it refreshes in cooking, giving you the closest flavor, appearance and aroma to that of fresh herbs without all the chopping. No wilt, guilt or waste.”
Finally, there are herb crystals.
“These are carefully hand harvested at the peak of flavor and color content, then combined with cane sugar to lock in the fresh flavor and vibrant color and to provide the crunchy texture,” says David Sasuga, owner, Fresh Origins LLC, in San Marcos, CA. “They can add a distinctive finishing touch to salads, fresh fruit, ice cream, pastries, doughnuts, savory dishes and even cocktails.”
Herb crystals are shelf-stable for up to eight months. Available flavors include basil, cilantro and mint.
SINGLE COMPARED TO MULTI-FACETED PACKAGING
Clamshells are a standard way to sell fresh herbs because the packs show off the product well on shelves. Some companies, like Shenandoah Growers, assure this with an anti-fog layer included on the inner face of the clamshell that forces any residual moisture in the packaging to run down into the absorbent padding behind the herbs, thus making them appear fresher and more visible on shelves.
However, packaging, especially technologically advanced packaging, can add to the product’s price point. That’s a challenge. Since fresh herbs typically sell at a premium, it’s best to choose packaging that offers multifaceted opportunities to boost the ring. This includes assorted sizes and educational information.
“Our customers live mostly in Manhattan, have small refrigerators and don’t want big packs of anything that either don’t fit in the fridge or ultimately go to waste,” says Goldman at Morton Williams. “That’s why single-serve 0.25-ounce packs of fresh herbs are big sellers for us. The smaller size has enabled me to carry more variety like opal basil, marjoram and lemon grass and to expand to more than 20 SKUs, including edible flowers.
“I line price at $1.49 each and it encourages customers to try different herbs. During the holidays, like Thanksgiving, we’ll bring in larger package sizes.”
Portion size is important, agrees Jonathan Rousell, sales director for Rock Garden, a grower-packer-shipper of herbs in Miami. “That’s why we offer retailers 0.25-, 0.5-, 0.75- and 1-ounce pack sizes, and can custom pack by herb for retailers.”
Beyond appearance and size, it’s important that fresh herb packaging work hard, says Jim Kras, president and chief marketing officer of Belvidere, NJ-headquartered, Edible Garden Corp., which markets living 4-inch potted herbs. “This means educational content like recipes, care instructions and a website address.”
UNKNOWN VERSUS WELL-KNOWN
Stocking the right herb products and in the right packaging can encourage customers to buy. But, first they need to know fresh herbs are available in the produce department.
“From a retailer perspective, the herb category is unique in that it drives higher consumer basket sizes. Research shows the average basket with fresh herbs ($80) is significantly higher than the average basket without ($35). The category also signals ‘fresh’ among other products in produce. This is why many of our retail partners have made creating a consumer herb destination part of their retail strategy,” says Shenandoah Growers’ Williams.
The tricky part is that not all herbs can be merchandized together.
“Basil needs to stay out of refrigeration, and sold, for example, next to the tomatoes,” says Julie Buehler, corporate strategist for Thermal, CA-based North Shore Sales & Marketing, Inc., which grows and markets living herbs with the root ball attached in mini-greenhouse packaging that enhances shelf life to 12 days. “In fact, from our facility to the retailer’s DC, we label our basil with red tape that says, ‘do not refrigerate’ since temperatures in the 40s can cause leaves to blacken.”
The best place to display the other fresh herbs, and non-shelf stable herb products, are near the bagged salads and pre-cut washed veggies and fruits, according to Gourmet Garden’s Khanna.
Shrink can be high in this highly perishable category. Nothing turns shoppers off like a display with decayed product.
“We schedule deliveries every day. That means frequent turns and minimal shrink,” says Morton Williams’ Goldman.
NOT-TO MEETS HOW-TO
One of the biggest barriers to purchasing fresh herbs is a shopper’s lack of understanding on how to use herbs in specific dishes. This makes the educational component crucial when displaying herbs for retail.
“Millennials and Gen Z like to be creative in the kitchen, but they like help,” suggests North Shore’s Buehler. “As they say, a picture conveys 1,000 words, therefore add a photo of something like a Caprese salad or basil made into pesto at point of sale.”
Herbs are a high-impulse purchase. Take advantage of this by cross-merchandising herbs with other items, says Shenandoah Growers’ Williams. “Basil with tomatoes, cilantro with avocados and chives with potatoes are easy add-ons. These displays help remind consumers how to use those herbs with other produce.”
Fresh herbs are now more commonly included in retail meal kit promotions, as well.
The combination of a retail herb and a recipe promotion is best because it provides inspiration and usage as well as a value to the shopper at the same time, according to Gourmet Garden’s Khanna. “In addition, when you add in education (such as a chef demo in-store), it is an effective promotion attracting shoppers who stay engaged at the store and in the category for long term.”
PRICE VERSUS PROMOTION
There’s not much price elasticity in fresh herbs, says North Shore’s Buehler. “A discount of 50 percent or 2 for 1 promotion won’t double sales. That’s because shoppers tend to buy what they need and don’t want to buy too much at one time and have it go to waste.”
Still, a small price discount can help, says Edible Garden’s Kras. “This combination adds value and drives trial. Of course, a price discount works better on a product like ours. Because our herbs are living, customers can keep them on their kitchen counters and even later plant outside.”
Holidays are an ideal time to promote fresh herbs.
“Demand for herbs changes seasonally and capitalizing on these demands is a must. For the Kentucky Derby, we promote spearmint, and for Thanksgiving we push our holiday mix. It is all about letting seasonality and context guide your sales,” says Jacobs Farm/Del Cabo’s Bird.
The fresh herb category has matured, but overall it’s still young, says Herbs Unlimited’s Goodman. “Consider that 10 percent of U.S. households buy 80 percent of herbs. There’s still a lot of opportunity out there.”