Consumers are looking for leafy greens, but not everyone seeks exactly the same thing.
Originally printed in the December 2021 issue of Produce Business.
Leafy greens have gotten a lot of attention over the past several years — in part because of creative use in foodservice, in part because consumers were looking for more nutritious ingredients, and in part because a lot of folks are interested in various cuisines. But getting the most out of the leafy greens category, such as kale, collards, radicchio and escarole, means playing to its strengths and overcoming its challenges.
The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted how many novice, and even experienced, cooks shopped the category, driving them to packaged, rather than bulk, greens.
Marc Goldman, produce director for Morton Williams Supermarket, Bronx, NY, says he was forced to cut back on bulk greens recently, due to the challenges involved with labor-intensive handling requirements.
“We’re still doing much more packaged than bulk,” Goldman says. “I think people got used to it and it’s easier to handle and prepare. Also, packaged products are less affected by the increase in pricing that we’ve been seeing.”
He’s also seeing Morton Williams consumers purchasing across more of the product category. “It’s not only kale,” Goldman says. “It’s across the whole category. Business has picked up.”
Zeke Kreitner, chief produce officer, Seasons, Flushing, NY, says his customers will pay a little more for the personal attention to their fruits and vegetables. He notes Seasons’ six neighborhood supermarkets and two smaller express stores include produce operations with a “fine touch,” so Seasons will invest in labor for a customer base that demands the consistent quality. The bulk leafy greens are prepared for display in the store and then constantly monitored. Seasons offers packaged product, but bulk leafy greens are important to the assortment. “We’re a smaller operation,” he says. “We have a different touch.”
Seasons has invested in in-house prep for fresh cuts, oven-ready items and greens, and customers appreciate it.
“Even lettuce is washed here and cut here. There’s a little bit of kosher certification that comes into the lettuce. Our No. 1 selling lettuce is our stuff.”
Consumers are looking for leafy greens, but not everyone seeks exactly the same thing.
“Basically, there are two movements in the country, as we see it right now,” says William Nardelli, president, Nardelli Bros. Inc., Cedarville, NJ. “The older school hasn’t changed that much. The boomers — they still want fresh produce and like the idea of a big bunch of greens. They think that’s nutritionally different, and that generation continues to buy big. Then you have the grab-and-go groups, the working people who go in and buy a bag.”
Nardelli says younger consumers, in the throes of their careers and used to convenience, want to be able to prepare tasty and nutritious meals quickly. So, any substantial greens presentation requires bulk and bagged alternatives.
Nardelli says the shift in generations has an impact in and around fresh greens, with items such as arugula becoming more prominent in shopping baskets, as well as cilantro, dill and other herbs. Items such as escarole, used by an older generation for soup, are slipping, he says. Boston lettuce is another item that is experiencing change, Nardelli says, not in the field crop, “but we do see increasing sales in hot house Boston and hydroponics.”
He adds that bagged lettuces that incorporate five or six different items and different colors are “very popular in the younger generation, where you don’t see as much demand for romaine and iceberg.”
For many consumers, convenience has always been a major consideration, and that certainly isn’t changing.
“We have a few seconds to grab consumers’ attention during their shopping trips,” says Megan Ichimoto, marketing and product development manager, San Miguel Produce, Oxnard, CA. “Packaged greens provide a visual way to grab consumers’ attention, identify products and provide product education. The packaging also serves as a way to protect the greens, help extend shelf life and reduce food waste. These benefits lead to better consumer experiences that encourages consumers to continue purchasing leafy greens.”
“Creating a destination set in store for leafy greens gives consumers a consistent place to find their favorite greens and try out other varieties,” Ichimoto says. “Often greens are separated into ‘cooking veg’ sets and ‘salads’ sets, playing into the assumption that cooking vegetables need to be cooked and cannot be eaten raw, and the salad greens can only be eaten raw. Educating consumers on the various ways they can prepare and consume their greens is key to increase purchase across the category.”
Information is critical to keep leafy greens sales going. Rick Russo, senior vice president of sales and marketing of Church Brothers Farms, Salinas, CA, says, “Point-of-sale information to help educate consumers on taste and texture characteristics, and recipes that complement them, would definitely help consumers explore ‘out of their box.’”
“Education on nutrition should definitely be highlighted where meaningful,” he says. “It is a supporting pillar for consumer choice, but ultimately they need to know what to do with it, and how to make it taste fantastic so they purchase more often.”
Many consumers know that eating more dark leafy greens is good for them, Ichimoto adds, but they don’t always know why or have the kind of information that puts that knowledge into perspective.
“Our bagged greens give us some real estate to educate our consumers,” she says. “Our value-added Cut ‘N Clean Greens and Jade Asian Greens provide nutritional information in relation to a common food. For example, did you know that kale has about 50% more potassium than a banana per calorie?”
The ability to act as a bridge between an intention and a prepared meal is important, and suppliers can work with retailers to ensure consumers get the resources necessary to make that happen.
“The main thing is we try to provide a lot of recipe content,” says Christine Jackson, senior manager, marketing and product development, Walter P. Rawl and Sons Inc., Pelion, SC. “There are traditional greens eaters and new greens eaters, and they want to know what are the nutritional qualities and also about recipes adding a little more nutrition to a casserole, for example.”
WHAT IS IT?
Purchasing bulk greens can be difficult for novice and even more seasoned shoppers, because it’s often hard to find what they’re looking for in the mass of misted leaves they confront at the grocery store. The problem is even greater when case labeling isn’t aligned properly with product or is largely or completely absent. Not only that, but product information can be lacking or is contained on bands that are so narrow that reading anything printed on them is difficult. Purchasing fresh greens shouldn’t be a frustrating experience, triggering consumers to walk away from bulk produce to purchase bagged — or nothing at all.
Nardelli Bros.’ Nardelli says identification is critical for the consumer and the store.
“We’ve introduced bands, wire ties, bibs to identify the variety of greens for the shopper,” he says. “But that also simplifies things for the checkout person. Now, we’re even doing our own labeling machines to do our own identifications.”
Nardelli says lack of employees has hurt at least some retailers across a wide breadth of the company’s territory from the South through the Midwest and into the Northeast. Often, signage isn’t available or attended because of insufficient store-level labor, which also translates into handling issues.
“We’re frustrated when things are not under misters and with things like that,” Nardelli says.
Merchandising and promotions are especially important to maximizing leafy greens sales, because they drive consumer focus on the category.
A challenge is, Russo says, “getting consumers to try new varieties and increase purchase frequency of the category as a whole, as they shop across the spectrum of offerings.”
Russo says the leafy greens category has been evolving.
“The convenience of ready-to-eat packaged leafy greens has been a driving force behind category growth for many years, both in retail, and foodservice channels,” he says. “I believe there is high potential in minimally processed leafy greens products that are trimmed of waste and washed, but not processed beyond that point. This type of product brings a smaller carbon footprint and mitigates a significant portion of work, while providing a consumer or foodservice operator flexibility in how they want to prep the final product.”
Rawl’s says, “There is someone who is going to buy bulk product. But whoever does is going to have to wash it and chop it and give it that time. Bagged offers convenience, which is what most of America wants. It’s two different customers.”
Ichimoto adds that home delivery meal kit growth, “especially in 2020 to 2021, has allowed consumers to try new and exciting ingredients. Things like collard greens or bok choy, which are typically used in traditional dishes, are now being shown to consumers in mainstream preparations. These meal kits allow consumers to try different leafy greens and hopefully continue to purchase them on future shopping trips.”
When pairing leafy greens with other products, “cross-merchandising with on-trend products can be a great way to support the education process,” Russo says.
The same thinking translates to social media, he adds.
“Social media that makes leafy greens ‘more cool,’ especially if synchronized with other merchandising tools to inspire consumers to purchase, would surely elevate leafy greens’ awareness,” he says.
Jackson says social media can promote essential characteristics that can drive leafy green sales.
“You can take old and new together by putting a fresh spin on,” she says. “The idea is that nutritional information is pretty important, so it’s a good idea to try on social media channels to put out that kind of information.”
Jackson adds that, today, consumers want a connection to growers, and, although signage can help establish that, social media can enhance that link.
Rawl offers a multitude of website and social media material that retailers can use to give consumers a look at where their food is grown, including field, processing and people photography and videos. And that’s not to mention a wide array of recipes organized by veggie, course and theme. The company has worked with influencers and even provided ebook cookbooks to support greater use of leafy greens. And it has worked with retailers to translate its material for their use.
“We have this information, and we love to share it,” Jackson says.
“Social media has changed the way we reach consumers,” says Ichimoto. “With a touch of a button, we can have a video clip or recipe uploaded and in front of our consumers. With the rise in online grocery shopping, that could mean a consumer is adding the item they just saw on social media directly into their cart.”
Even with the benefits of online media, hands-on interaction with consumers remains meaningful.
“In-store demos are key,” Jackson says. “With new product, to really get consumers to try it, demos really help with purchases and repeat buys. Right now is a weird time for demos, and some retailers aren’t doing them. But demoing plus information is important.”
Regional demand for leafy greens has some influence on consumption in the larger sense, but Nardelli says many of the differences are more locally based, with trend-embracing cities not necessarily following the same purchasing patterns as adjacent communities that are often more fond of local traditions.
However, he notes that, with many former urbanites moving into the suburbs, local consumption patterns are changing.
Whatever is driving purchasing, Nardelli says, baby bok choy and daikon have been doing well.
In some cases, season plays a role as well, with Jackson noting that collards spike around the holidays.
It’s important to keep tabs on how consumers are using leafy greens, both from a trend and seasonal perspective, Ichimoto agrees.
“Green kale has now become an essential in many consumers’ shopping baskets, due to its culinary versatility,” she says. “With the rise in organics over the years, it is important to have an organic option for popular greens like kale and spinach. In urban markets, comfort greens, collard, mustard and turnips, are staples in consumer’s baskets used primarily for traditional Southern braises. In these markets, comfort greens often outpace the popularity of kale.
“During the holiday months, November to January, it is important to have larger, family pack sizes available to meet the demand for holiday dishes, winter soups/braises, or fresh salads and greens smoothies, and we enter the new year and into ‘diet season.’ These large pack sizes are also important in urban markets where consumers often cook five to 10 pounds of greens at one time to make their dishes.”
Just what the future holds for leafy greens is hard to say, although consumer trends — seeking out new dishes to keep home meals interesting and nutritional awareness — all suggest momentum.
An interesting factor will be the ongoing revival of the restaurant business. After all, many restaurants are looking at food in new ways, finding ways to make it more flavorful and nutritious. With their varying flavor profiles, leafy greens bring vitamins, minerals and particular flavors to dishes. As restaurants entice consumers back, they are going to provide new dishes and that may work in the favor of leafy greens, as well.
“Foodservice does play a large role, and I do think it helped build the whole kale craze from New York. We saw a big push from up there, and it started in restaurants,” Jackson points out.