Cold Weather Comfort

Originally printed in the November 2018 issue of Produce Business.

Warming up winter merchandising strategies.

Despite what seemed like a never-ending summer in much of the country this year, winter indeed has arrived. From Thanksgiving through the year-end holidays, to Super Bowl Sunday, produce executives will be putting their winter merchandising strategies to work to move seasonal produce and increase register rings. From root vegetables and greens to avocados and strawberries, suppliers have some advice for retailers on best practices for keeping those winter sales strong all season long.

Promoting Comfort Food

In much of the country, winter means colder weather, longer commutes and being stuck inside for most of the time. Food becomes a comfort during the winter season, perhaps more than any other time of the year. “Potatoes fall right into that zone of comfort foods,” says Marc Turner, general manager of Bushwick Commission based in Farmingdale, NY, “Onions fall into the category, as well.” Turner believes onions and potatoes or onions pair well together and can be marketed together in the produce department to boost the sales of both comforting commodities.

Jamie Bowen, marketing manager for the Idaho Potato Commission, based in Eagle, ID, believes winter is not the time for potatoes to give up their prominent positioning. “Potatoes are often a regular buy, since most households have potatoes at home at all times. Therefore, it is important to properly merchandise potatoes by making them clearly visible. Bowen suggests merchandising all varieties in one location, and clearly marketing pricing and promotions. She says by keeping the category well-stocked with multiple varieties, consumers will be enticed to buy beyond bakers.

The same merchandising tactic holds true across the produce aisles. Matt Hiltner, marketing coordinator at Babé Farms, Inc., based in Santa Maria, CA, believes a well-stocked produce department is the key to sales. This means the season is also as good a time as any to promote specialty varieties. According to Hiltner, “Consumers these days crave the specialty vegetable varieties they see in online recipes and on social media, so it is important to have those available; colorful carrots, beets, turnips, and radishes can make for a truly stunning root vegetable roast,” he says.

Proper Placement

It’s not just about piling commodities high during the winter months. Shoppers buy commodities like potatoes year-round, so they should always get proper placement. Bowen believes potatoes should keep their high-profile spot throughout the year. “Potatoes are one of the most frequently purchased and largest volume items in the store and therefore are normally provided a significant amount of space and focus.”

When it comes to sweet potatoes, placement should take precedence over price point, according to George Wooten, president of the Wayne E. Bailey Produce Co. in Chadbourn, NC. “Location is important,” says Wooten. “Placement of sweet potatoes in key locations can help without any advertising or price-changing.” He suggests retailers maintain a nice, vibrant display of both bulk and packaged offerings. “The bulk sweet potato is the major consumed item in the retail store. Steamer bags have a great opportunity to promote; it’s not great volume, but they do make a good high-margin item.”

Price Points

Trying to hit a certain price point at all costs is not the way to make customers happy. Shoppers are not likely to forget getting an inferior product once they are home and get ready to prepare their items. According to Tami Long, director of marketing and business development for Nash Produce in Nashville, NC, “Buying inferior product just to meet a price point will only disappoint consumers. Quality and convenience are what consumers want, and frankly, they are demanding it.” Long believes consumers will seek out quality and that could mean turning to the competition. “Now that produce is available in multiple locations, consumers have more options to find exactly what they need and want. A buyer may get a lower price point, but if the consumer doesn’t buy the product, how is this profitable for anyone?”

Turner at the Bushwick Commission stresses pricing consistency in his advice for retailers, “Promoting consistent price points at retail will keep consumers happy, knowing that potatoes and onions are always readily available,” he says. “For an extra boost, retailers can promote ads for value-added potato items, which have grown tremendously in the category.”

Tis the Season

Although it may seem counterintuitive, the holidays aren’t the time to ease up on the health message. Says Hiltner at Babé Farms, “Healthy eating during the holidays isn’t as crazy as it sounds. A common food-swap to cut carbs is switching out celery root for potatoes.

Wooten at Wayne E. Bailey Produce says thinking needs to change on traditional toppings. “One of the things I think we need to get away from is all the traditional seasonings, like cinnamon and sugar,” he says. “The sweet potato in the fall, when it’s cured, has its own natural sweetness to start. That’s good sugar, not the bad. It’s a complex carbohydrate.” Instead of promoting sweet potatoes with these types of seasonings ahead of the holidays, Wooten recommends retailers cross merchandise them with more savory toppings. “You can put chicken and onions and mushrooms on them and have a complete meal. We’ve seen a lot of cross-merchandising with avocados too, like sweet potato toast with avocados.”

Fruit is a welcome sight around the holidays. Bright, colorful items, such as strawberries, are perfect for highlighting special meals. “We are the color of the holidays,” says Sue Harrell, director of marketing for the Florida Strawberries Growers Association based in Plant City, FL. Christmas through Valentine’s Day, Harrell recommends produce managers decorate their departments with strawberries throughout. Giving them upfront placement can be a very persuasive selling tactic as well, and the health message can play a prominent role in promotion. “Cake and whipped cream are not all consumers do with fresh strawberries now.” says Harrell. “Recipes for healthy salads, smoothies, desserts and even savory dishes, incorporate fresh strawberries.”

Hiltner at Babé Farms sees many produce options for adding color during the holiday season. He suggests retailers cross-merchandise items that can be used together to create a decorative and edible holiday display. “Red, white and green veggies are a good place to start,” Hiltner says. He suggests striped candy cane beets, red and white French breakfast radishes, snowball and icicle radishes or Tokyo turnips, and for the green; Christmas tree-shaped Romanesco cauliflower. “Colorful root veggies are the perfect ornaments for an edible Christmas tree,” says Hiltner.

Super Bowl

You could argue whether Super Bowl Sunday is a holiday or not, but it is a major feasting day regardless, and it’s also a huge opportunity for produce sales. The avocado may be king, but other commodities share the limelight. What better veggie to support a fellow superfood than sweet potatoes? Long, at Nash Produce has some advice for produce executives: “Start a campaign: ‘Great Snacks, No Guilt.’ Sweet potatoes can be made into hummus, salsa, dips. You can fry, bake, broil, microwave them.” Nash also recommends appetizer kits using ingredients such as sweet potatoes and ground turkey to make nachos. “If you make it simple and convenient, people will buy it,” says Nash.

Marc Turner at Bushwick Commission points out that the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl give retailers an opportunity to promote potatoes and onions throughout the playoffs. “Football playoffs are an exciting time for sports fans and primed for weekend gatherings for the whole month of January,” says Turner. “Marketing during this period would provide real excitement for potatoes and onions.” This allows retailers to build up the momentum for that extra boost of promotion before the big game in February.

Bowen at the Idaho Potato Commission agrees that the potato-onion team up is great for merchandising, but recommends cross merchandising with bacon bits, salad dressings and other toppings as well. “Using items like these to inspire dishes such as potato skins would be very successful during the Super Bowl.”

Special Promotions

The winter months are not the time for managers to hibernate their special promotions. Capitalizing on current trends is a good place to start, and right now that means emphasizing quick and convenient offerings. “The hot trend right now is ready-made meals,” says Long at Nash Produce. “Supermarkets are uniquely set up to meet this demand, in that they have all the supplies available in their stores. A ready-to-make dinner can be created while the consumer finishes shopping.” Long believes that supermarkets that prep sweet potatoes for easy home cooking will see a spike in sales.

Harrell at the Florida Strawberries Growers Association recommends recipe cards as a way to boost sales. “Consumers love recipes and are always looking for creative ways to introduce fruit to their diet,” she Harrell. “We have beautifully photographed recipes on our website and social media channels we can share.” That sentiment is echoed by Hiltner at Babé Farms, who recommends retailers hold in-store demos and pass out recipe sheets to help better educate consumers. “The less legwork they must do for their holiday cooking, the more likely they will be to buy. Make the process as simple as possible for them,” he says.

Contests are another fun way to engage consumers. “We have numerous contests during the season to promote buying fresh Florida strawberries,” says Harrell.

As far as contests, what’s good for fruit is good for potatoes. According to Bowen, “Our annual Potato Lover’s Month retail contest starts shortly after the holiday season.” Retailers have the opportunity to win prizes by putting together the best displays using Idaho Potatoes and affiliated products with custom point-of-sale materials and recipes. “This is a fantastic retail promotion for the produce managers to be involved in,” says Bowen.

From the URBAN Retail Perspective

Different retailers have different plans for merchandising winter commodities in their departments. Customer demographics, store size and geographic location will dictate merchandising plans.

For Morton Williams supermarket, headquartered in the Bronx and with 15 stores in the New York City Metropolitan Area, each store in unique. One difference between individual stores is the amount of commodities customers purchase. Produce director Marc Goldman understands that urban shoppers have different needs from their suburban counterparts.

“Being in Manhattan, with small stores, people shop a lot differently than they do in the suburbs,” he says. “I don’t sell as many 5-pound bags of potatoes. It’s more loose potatoes, smaller boxes.”

Store size also factors into the strategy and covers a very drastic range from location to location. “I’ve got stores as small as 300 to 500 square feet,” says Goldman. “The store in Jersey City, NJ, is about 30,000 square feet.” Regardless of the size, the changeover from summer to winter commodities is appreciated by customers. “People take notice,” says Goldman. “It’s good to change things around.”

Although floor space is limited in some Morton Williams locations, events such as the Super Bowl still require special attention. “We have extra avocados on hand, extra limes, depending on the space in the store; we’ll tie in with guacamole, salsa, cilantro. That’s the biggest peak of the year of avocados.”

Seasonal commodities are now available year-round, but that doesn’t mean they are quality products. “You can get summer fruit year-round, but the quality is not the same,” says Goldman. “We will carry it, but with very small displays. The grapes we push year-round. The melons are much better than they used to be. Once summer ends, we start going to apples and pears.”

Much of the produce Morton Williams sells is sourced from the Hunts Point Produce Market in the Bronx on a daily basis. “We have up to six trucks at the market every day,” says Goldman. To keep all his produce managers up to speed on what seasonal items are coming in, Goldman keeps in constant contact. “We have a group text with all 15 store managers, and I let the produce managers know to start increasing the variety of the apples and putting them back in front and tighten up on all the summer fruit.” In addition to the group text, Goldman is also in the stores in person. “I’m in 15 stores a day,” he says. “I’m talking to them (produce managers). I’m always looking for input.”

Daily market visits are also the approach of A&N House of Produce in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia. This is true throughout the year and winter is no exception. According to store manager Dan Dvor, “We go to market every day, so we see how everything is developing, what items are coming in. We tend to highlight the fruit (in the winter months), the big stuff. We move from the summer fruits to citrus and apples, when they really start hitting the season, so all the different citrus comes in during the winter months.”

According to Dvor, residents of the Germantown neighborhood prepare many of their daily meals at home, so they need their ingredients on a consistent basis at a consistent price. Dvor believes A&N offers a consistent price that is significantly lower than competing chain retailers. This hold true for winter commodities, as well. “We’re able to not just provide something once a week on special but on a consistent basis,” says Dvor, and the store’s customers trust them to sell quality produce throughout the year, regardless of the season.

With the arrival of the holidays, A&N increases displays on key items, such as sweet potatoes, collard greens, green beans and cabbages. The store has 4,000 square feet of floor space, all dedicated to produce, which makes creating bigger displays of items such as winter squash easier than it is for some retailers. “I try to buy bins of the hard-shell squash and make an extra display for it, but that’s only if I find a good opportunity,” says Dvor. Dvor sees his customers as much more willing to cook during the winter months and the uptick in sales of hearty vegetables like celery, beets and potatoes reflects this.

A&N relies heavily on word-of-mouth advertising to promote seasonal offerings, as well as more than 600 mostly positive reviews on Google to get customers into the store. “Luckily, we have a strong customer base that knows the ins and outs of where to get good produce.” A&N has created seven sections within the store, with one employee responsible for each section to ensure all items look good, prices are visible and the quality is maintained throughout the day. “There’s a lot of eyes there. There’s the manager and the owner looking at the bigger picture. Produce is one of those things you have to pay attention to.”