Chinese New Year Is A Golden Opportunity to Promote Produce

Eat Brighter Brown PearsPhoto Courtesy of I Love Produce

By following this 5-step plan, retailers embracing the Lunar New Year can attract Asian-Americans and lure others as well.

Chinese New Year (CNY) isn’t just a celebration for Asians. It’s a festive holiday that’s fast moving mainstream. In fact, New York City added the Lunar New Year (as it’s properly called) to the public school calendar last year joining the ranks of two other cities, San Francisco and Tenafly, NJ. Add to this celebrity chefs, food bloggers and restaurateurs creating special menus centered on the CNY theme and even non-Asians can’t help but enjoy taking part in the fun, which will begin on February 8, 2016.

A primary reason for the growing popularity of CNY is the rise in numbers of Asian-Americans. From 6 percent of the U.S. population today, Asians are expected to outnumber Hispanics and comprise 38 percent of America’s immigrants by 2065, according to the September 2015-released report by the Pew Research Center, entitled Modern Immigration Wave Brings 59 Million to U.S., Driving Population Growth and Change Through 2065.

“As the Asian population continues to grow in the U.S., particularly of those that do celebrate Lunar New Year, this should resonate strongly among food industry leaders, especially with the produce industry as many Asian cuisines use a plethora of fresh produce,” says Kenny Mills, Northeast regional sales supervisor for House Foods America, headquartered in Garden Grove, CA.

Asian-Americans are indeed major produce consumers. This ethnic demographic consumed an average of $695 worth of fresh produce annually in 2009, compared to $496 for Hispanic Americans, $439 for White/Non-Hispanic Americans, and $287 for African Americans, according to the October 2011-released report, Tracking Demographics and U.S. Fruit and Vegetable Consumption Patterns, by Roberta Cook, cooperative extension specialist at the University of California at Davis.

More recently, the Produce for Better Health Foundation’s 2015 Study on America’s Consumption of Fruits and Vegetables reported Asian-Americans rated 732 annual eatings per capita of fruits and vegetables combined, more than White/Non-Hispanic Americans or African-Americans.

“Chinese New Year is a very produce-centered holiday,” says Jin Ju Wilder, director of corporate strategy at Valley Fruit & Produce Co., in Los Angeles. “It’s not just about using fruits and vegetables as ingredients in meals, but also for gift-giving, decorating the house and consuming throughout the two-week festival period. In addition, many people will forego meat and eat vegetarian for the holiday to cleanse the body and soul.”

“Chinese New Year is a great opportunity for us to carry specialty items our Asian customers are looking for, and at the same time, introduce our mainstream shoppers to fruits and vegetables they may not have tried before.”

— Rick Hogan, Hugo’s Family Marketplace

Beyond this, Asian cuisine and ingredients are fashionable among those who follow the current foodie trends. In fact, almost half (49 percent) of the nearly 1,600 American Culinary Federation chefs surveyed for the National Restaurant Association’s ‘What’s Hot in 2016’ survey called Southeast Asian cuisine a hot trend, while an additional 35 percent said this global flavor was a perennial favorite. It’s important to note CNY is not only celebrated by those of Chinese heritage, but also by those from countries to the north of China such as Korea and to the outh like Vietnam, Laos, Singapore and Malaysia.

“Chinese New Year is a great opportunity for us to carry specialty items our Asian customers are looking for, and at the same time, introduce our mainstream shoppers to fruits and vegetables they may not have tried before. Plus, it’s a chance to add some fun and excitement to the produce department in the middle of winter,” says Rick Hogan, produce education manager at Hugo’s Family Marketplace, a 10-store chain based in Grand Forks, ND.

5 How-To’s

Various industry experts agree the best way for mainstream retailers to boost produce sales around CNY is to follow this five-step plan.

1. Identify Your Target Audience(s).

Asian and non-Asian shoppers are both audiences for this holiday. However, merchandising methods to best reach each group differ.

“First generation Asian immigrants will buy their ingredients from the ethnic markets,” explains Valley Fruit & Produce’s Wilder. “You’re not going to get these people to change stores. Second generation and more assimilated Asians present the greatest opportunity for mainstream retailers to increase sales. These are the folks who still want culturally-favorite foods, but also want the convenience of shopping at their neighborhood market.”

Produce promotions at this time are more relevant for Asian shoppers, according to Karen Brux, North American managing director of the San Carlos, CA-based Chilean Fresh Fruit Association, who lived in Asia for 10 years and celebrated many a Chinese New Year. “In markets with strong Asian populations (such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Vancouver and Toronto) there are definitely opportunities to design high-end fruit gift boxes that people can offer as presents when they go to the homes of their friends and family, which is what happens during the New Year period.”

Make sure there is good signage on displays, including a description of the product and usage suggestions. Companies such as Melissa’s/World Variety Produce and Vitasoy USA, offer customizable point-of-sale materials such as shelf cards, danglers, recipes and coupons.

Spice World Giner Squeeze Bottle“Most non-Asians will not know its Chinese New Year, so signs are going to drive the message,” says Ralph Schwartz, vice president of marketing, sales and innovation for Idaho Falls, ID-based Potandon Produce, LLC, which sees strong bagged yellow onion sales in the winter.”

The trend for Asian cuisine in restaurants started gaining popularity that mainstream consumers are interested in creating these dishes at home. Have the ingredients readily available at retail, and use CNY to introduce them, suggests Garrett Nishimori, marketing manager and corporate chef for Oxnard, CA-headquartered San Miguel Produce, which markets Jade-brand Asian Greens. “They will discover they are not only delicious and nutritious but also really easy to prepare and this factor can lead to continued sales after the holiday.”

Mary Ostlund, marketing director at Brooks Tropicals, LLC, in Homestead, FL, sums up the target audience piece spot on: “Focus on your Asian customers and your non-Asian customers will enjoy being included in the celebration.”

2. Decide What To Sell.

Ginger, Napa cabbage, bok choy, Gai Lan, choy sum, and convenience items (such as stir fry mixes and fresh Chinese noodles) are a few of the Asian foods offered at Hugo’s Family Marketplace for CNY.

Ginger is a great flavoring for Chinese cuisine and has increased in demand at a rate of 12 percent per year. Additionally, supplies of fresh ginger from both Peru and China are plentiful, so pricing is very advantageous for ads,” says Jim Provost, president of I Love Produce, Inc., in Kelton, PA. “We provided a special 2-pound clamshell for a retailer of our organic ginger from Peru. It retailed for $5.99, so about $3.00 per pound, offering a great value to the consumer. Conventional ginger normally retails for $2.99 per pound, so this is a value.  The chain sold a truckload of clamshells in conjunction with the Chinese New Year ad.”

More than 45 percent of retailers nationwide expand lines of Asian produce leading up to the CNY promotion, according to Robert Schueller, director of public relations for Melissa’s/World Variety Produce, in Los Angeles.

“In comparison to the year prior, we saw a 13 percent growth rate in our Asian produce category in the weeks leading up to CNY,” says Schueller.

Schueller says this included a 17 percent increase in value-added items such as its six-item line of Asian Essentials (1-pound clamshell packs of Asian greens including Napa cabbage leaves and bok choy leaves), shelled edamame, and noodles; 22 percent increase in cross-merchandised items (wonton and egg roll wrappers); 13 percent increase in Asian peppers (i.e. Shishito); 12 percent increase in fresh Asian mushrooms (Oyster, King Oyster, Enoki, Wood Ear and Shiitake); and 11 percent increase in Asian eggplants (Chinese, Japanese, Thai).

“Promote bulk items to Asian shoppers like baby bok choy, dau miu [snow pea shoots], gai lan [Asian broccoli rapini], yu choy [Asian flowering cabbage], Napa cabbage and Asian mushrooms [Shiitake],” explains San Miguel Produce’s Nishimori. “These items are the ones that our families bok-choytraditionally needed to go to an Asian market to shop for. Promote value-added products to non-Asian shoppers like real Asian vegetables — not Asian stir-fry kits that consist of bell peppers and onions. Most Asian shoppers will already have recipes and ideas on preparation for the holidays. Non-Asian shoppers might need some recipe inspiration. Our recent packaging re-design from clamshells to bags features easy to follow recipes and different pack sizes to encourage mainstream customers to try them.”

Citrus is an ideal category to promote for CNY. “Kumquats are very popular, but unfortunately this tropical fruit will be scarce during the upcoming holiday,” says Brooks Tropicals’ Ostlund. “Other citrus is well-liked too and holds special meaning. For example, Uniq (Ugli) fruit and pomelos are thought to bring continuous prosperity. Tradition has it that the more you eat, the more wealth it will bring. Fruit that are ‘golden’ in color, like starfruit and papaya help to symbolize fullness and wealth. Your Asian customers need not be reminded of the fruit’s significance but your non-Asian customer will enjoy learning about the fruit and the holiday.”

Photo Courtesy of Vitasoy

Photo Courtesy of Vitasoy

Another popular fruit to merchandise is Asian Pears. “Traditionally these are given as gifts in conjunction with Chinese New Year,” explains I Love Produce’s Provost. “Round fruits represent wealth (as they are round in shape like coins) and are considered lucky to have in the household to bring prosperity for the New Year. Asian Pears are readily available from California, Korea and China in good supplies for Chinese New Year ad. We offer packaging utilizing the Sesame Street “Eat Brighter” campaign that is a hit with our retailers. Display boxes and gift boxes make end-aisle pallet displays very easy to build.”

CNY in 2016 marks the year of the monkey. “The Chinese characters for kiwifruit translate as ‘monkey peach’ kiwifruit,” says the CFFA’s Brux. “I see good opportunities to do really unique marketing with this. Gold kiwifruit in particular would be perfect, due to its premium image.”

Tofu, conventional and organic, is a strong promotional item for CNY, according to House Foods America’s Mills. “In 2016, we are collaborating with DreamWorks Animation and will be using Kung Fu Panda 3 branded packaging for our tofu line during the Chinese New Year. Our hope is it will appeal to both Asian and non-Asian shoppers.”

3. Display, cross-Display and Demo.

“It’ll be a busy week. Super Bowl is on the Sunday, Chinese New Year is the Monday and Valentine’s Day is six days later on the Sunday. It’s not really a problem for us because we build different displays within the produce department that cater to each of these themes,” says Hogan of Hugo’s Family Marketplace. “The Chinese New Year display will include a large section of refrigerated tables. We get our signage from Melissa’s, make it festive-looking, and we will demo either Asian products themselves or a simple recipe.”

Similarly, at Roche Bros — a chain based in Wellesley, MA, with about 20 stores — all items are grouped together to add impact for the holiday.

“Most times we will also tie in complementary grocery items to enhance the displays,” says Tom Murray, vice president of produce and floral.

Holiday occasions such as CNY give produce managers a chance to show off their creativity in displays rather than simply stocking according to planogram.

“This is a great time to really engage produce managers and it’s an opportunity for them to express themselves and feel relevant,” says Karen Caplan, president and chief executive of Frieda’s Inc., in Los Alamitos, CA.

Adorn displays with simple red and gold ribbons. “Asians will know what these colors mean even without the Chinese characters, while non-Asians won’t be turned off but instead it will catch their attention,” says Valley Fruit & Produce’s Wilder. Hogan at Hugo’s Family Marketplace will cross-Concord Foods Stir Fry Mixmerchandise items around a meal suggestion and include a recipe. Sometimes they will also demo Asian ingredients either alone or incorporated into a simple dish.

“Promote Chinese New Year for at least two weeks, because the celebrations can start as much as three weeks earlier than Chinese New Year’s Eve.”

— Mary Ostlund, Brooks Tropicals

“If we have enough cold display space, we may promote chicken from the meat department, as well as adding a sauce from grocery to make a one-stop shop in the front of the produce department,” says Hogan.

Great tie-in ingredients for recipe-based displays include the shelf-stable Asian Style Stir Fry Mix from Concord Foods, in Brockton, MA, and the newly launched 10-ounce squeeze bottle of chopped ginger from Spice World, Inc., in Orlando, FL.

“By creating beautiful produce displays, retailers are providing recipe ideas to many impulse (and non-impulse) buyers, they are adding excitement to the produce department and they are increasing sales in produce and the grocery aisles. Consumers that purchase the produce, will also be purchasing tie-in items such as fish and noodles. The entire store will benefit from a beautiful and well-conceived Chinese New Year produce display,” says Samantha McCaul, marketing manager for Brockton, MA-based Concord Foods.

4. Time It Right.

“Promote Chinese New Year for at least two weeks, because the celebrations can start as much as three weeks earlier than Chinese New Year’s Eve,” says Brooks Tropicals’ Ostlund. “Promote afterward as well. There are different closing dates. This can be six days after the Chinese New Year’s Day, but some carry the observance through the 15th day of the New Year.”

5. Advertise and Promote.

“Since the Lunar New Year falls on a Monday this year, and many retailers run ads from Fridays, it may be best for retailers to run an ad for two weeks (e.g. 01/29/16 – 02/11/16) to give consumers some extra days to buy their goods, but still keeping in mind that the heaviest pull will more than likely be the weekend before Lunar New Year,” says House Foods America’s Mills. Murray at Roche Bros. advertises by setting up a block in the weekly ad celebrating Chinese New Year featuring a variety of produce items.

“Items include Nasoya tofu, egg roll and wonton wrappers, Chinese noodles (Pasta Zero), Shiitake mushrooms, Yakisoba stir fry noodles, Udon noodles, Jonathan’s bean sprouts, fresh bok choy and Napa cabbage. We also advertise pomelos and Cara Cara oranges,” says Murray.

Last year, Roche Bros. promoted a recipe from vendor, Vitasoy USA, for egg rolls on the chain’s website. Produce ingredients included Nasoya-brand egg roll wraps, minced ginger, cabbage, bean sprouts, carrots and green onions.

Internet and social media can also be a potent avenue for promotion. “We have more than 66,000 Facebook followers. We also use Twitter, YouTube and Instagram to target particular holidays like Chinese New Year,” says Tanja Owen, senior brand manager at Ayer, MA-based Vitasoy USA. “Many times, this process involves sending a quick-and-easy recipe using our wonton and egg roll wrappers. We see sales of wraps increase 30 percent from November through Chinese New Year and this is one of the reasons.”