Stores can take a few purposeful actions toward year-round asparagus merchandising to boost sales.
Asparagus has become a solid year-round vegetable and supply from Peru plays a crucial role in having consistent product on the shelf.
“Over the last several years, asparagus has become more mainstream as consumers discover its versatility,” says Katiana Valdes, director of marketing and business development for Crystal Valley Foods in Miami, FL. “Since it is available year-round and has become an item consumers are more familiar with preparing, it has gone beyond just a seasonal vegetable.”
The asparagus commodity is important to retail, stresses Lauren Brierly, category manager for asparagus and wet vegetables at Progressive Produce in Commerce, CA.
“Asparagus supply allows retailers to have it available year-round to consumers,” she says. “This has helped increase the popularity of asparagus, taking it from a specialty to more high-end, mainstream vegetable. With year-round availability from overlapping regions, there are several times throughout the year when asparagus can be promoted.”
Over the last few years, Redner’s Markets in Reading, PA, with 44 stores, has given asparagus more prominent space. “We follow its year-round availability,” says Mark Cotê, regional produce supervisor. “When local product dries up, we jump on Peruvian product. It fills in a big gap. This is especially important for the holidays in November and December.”
Peru is a reliable source of high quality asparagus 52 weeks a year, explains Valdes. “It is because of this consistency that we make sure we always have Peruvian asparagus to supplement our other sourcing regions throughout the year,” she says. “It helps to ensure that our customers are always covered in case of a weather-related or other unforeseen issue.”
In 2021, U.S. imports from Peru increased 9% over the previous year, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics, to 224,871,286 pounds. “These statistics are important because it means Peru can help retailers promote consistent sales,” says Priscilla Lleras-Bush, coordinator for the Peruvian Asparagus Importers Association (PAIA).
Although consumption has steadily increased over the years, Valdes believes there is still potential to help grow the asparagus category and increase demand. “We need to remind current consumers about its great health benefits and introduce new and innovative usages,” she says. “We also need to reach out to those consumers who may not know about this amazing vegetable yet.”
Most households purchase asparagus only a few times a year, so there is a huge opportunity to help consumers understand more about it and purchase it more regularly, agrees Lleras-Bush.
“Retailers who take just a few steps to up their asparagus merchandising game will see sales increase,” she says. “Intentionally merchandising asparagus all year will boost sales and stores should strive for seamless, ample asparagus display and promotion.”
1. Make Even More Impactful Displays
The first step to more sales is visibility. “Shoppers don’t buy what they can’t see,” says Lleras-Bush. “Displays should be noticeable and prominent. Asparagus is a good ring for the department so stores should encourage shoppers to put it in their baskets.”
Asparagus generally sells better when there is a larger display, agrees Brierly. “With asparagus now being an item that is on the weekly shopping list, having a larger display increases visibility,” she says.
At Harbortown Market, an upscale retailer in Detroit, MI, produce director Sam Marrogy combines pricing deals with prominent displays. “When the price is great on asparagus, I buy extra,” he says. “Then I build a nice display right up front and put a visible sign about the deal. When shoppers walk by, they see it and almost always buy. Even if they didn’t intend to pick up asparagus that day, they do because of the price and visibility.”
Utilizing various locations, but with correct care, is advantageous. “Most retailers display bunched asparagus near wet vegetables,” says Charlie Eagle, vice president of business development for Southern Specialties in Pompano Beach, FL. “End cap promotions and displays can be very successful, but we encourage managers to rotate the asparagus to minimize breaks in the cold chain.”
It’s also important to create displays year-round for a variety of occasions. “Asparagus is great as a side during holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter, but it is also fantastic cooked on a grill, or as part of a crudité during the summer months,” says Valdes.
2. Add Variety Through Size And Packaging
A second step to promote sales? Offer options for shoppers. “Having variety is an encouragement for shoppers to purchase,” says Cotê.
Peru offers a variety of sizes and packaging that can be promoted for different uses, according to Lleras-Bush. “Display value-added, bagged or tray-packed fresh asparagus to appeal to convenience customers,” she says.
Southern Specialties reports success in offering both bulk and Southern Selects value-added packaged asparagus in the produce department. “Offer a presentation for every consumer,” says Eagle. “Small trimmed asparagus may be ideal for someone serving two people and wanting to microwave in minutes. Larger, family size packs, are perfect for home entertaining and holiday gatherings. By offering these options along with different colors, a retailer is assured consumers will stay engaged with the products.”
3. Use Color To Create More Interest
Peru’s availability of white and purple asparagus, in addition to the traditional green product, is another step in drawing shoppers attention. “The foodservice sector enjoys incorporating purple and white asparagus on menus,” says Eagle. “This exposure helps increase demand from retail consumers. From the retail perspective, variety on the shelf and color breaks create diversity and appeal, and pique consumers’ interest in the category.”
Progressive’s Brierly reports seeing purple and white asparagus grow in popularity. “As we head into the fall and more people cooking at home, colored asparagus adds a fun and exciting spin on dinner,” she says.
During holidays, it can be impressive to offer white and purple asparagus to the retail display, advises Crystal Valley’s Valdes. “While we do offer white asparagus year-round, it is definitely a special item to add to the merchandising mix for a holiday like Christmas or Easter,” she says.
“There is a huge opportunity for retail to educate consumers on this delicious white asparagus. The U.S. retail customer lacks awareness of the product, its distinct preparation requirements (it must be peeled), and recipe ideas.”
4. Promote Health
Touting health benefits is surefire way to gain sales. PAIA’s Lleras-Bush explains 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.
According to Cotê, health benefits are a major focus for promotion at Redner’s. “We talk about the value and convenience of asparagus, but we really promote the health benefits, too,” he says. “It seems shoppers are really into healthy vegetables right now.”
Stores speak to shopper priorities by promoting the health aspects. “Nutritional considerations are resonating with more and more consumers these days,” says Southern Specialties’ Eagle. “Asparagus is a wonderful low calorie source of vitamins.”
5. Promote And Educate
A little promotion and communication goes a long way to encourage purchase. “Retailers can continue to educate consumers about asparagus usages and health benefits through traditional POS as well as by sharing recipes and information on their websites and social platforms,” says Valdes. “The best time to promote Peruvian-grown asparagus is during its peak season, September through early December.”
Ensuring shoppers know how easily prepared and versatile asparagus is will drive sales, suggests Lleras-Bush. “Give them ideas on usage with signage, highlighting how easy and quick it is to prepare.”
Southern Specialties includes preparation information on its Southern Selects packaging. “There is also a link to the recipe section of our website,” says Eagle. “QR codes are becoming more popular as a means of directing consumers to good information. Digital is the most efficient manner, since produce personnel and consumers tend to dispose of printed material before they have an opportunity to use it. That being said, we support our customers with any type of material they wish.”
6. Use Creative Cross-Merchandising
Placing complementary items with asparagus drives multiple sales. “Putting the right tie-ins with asparagus yields increased ring,” says Cotê. “Good tie-ins include lemons and garlic (fresh or minced). And since these are also produce items, this increases incremental sales within the department.”
Stores can think beyond the traditional hollandaise sauce to other items. “Asparagus is wonderful with egg dishes, tastes great with hams or bacons and is a natural with a variety of cheeses,” says Eagle.
Thinking outside-the-box to incorporate meal occasion ideas stimulates purchases. “Asparagus is a favorite for spring and summer cookouts, parties, family gatherings and is quickly becoming a holiday staple, so retailers should cross-merchandise with meats and other grilling and holiday essentials,” says Valdes.
“It’s also becoming a popular brunch item and can be added to quiches, frittatas and other egg dishes. Finally, it can also be enjoyed in a crudité platter so it is beneficial to cross-merchandise asparagus with ranch and yogurt dips.”
7. Tempt Shopper Tastebuds
Taste sells and demos are an effective step to propel purchases. “A demo is my No. 1 choice to move more asparagus,” says Cotê. “Demos help recall to the customer’s mind how good the product is, and the smell is inviting in the department.”
In-store demos are a great vehicle for increasing retail movement of both white and green asparagus, agrees Valdes. “They offer customers a chance to try the product perhaps in a unique way they might not have thought of before.”
Harbortown frequently utilizes demos. “We have regular demos in the department and we work in asparagus,” says Marrogy. “Demos sell product. When we demo in the right spot and have the right price, the product flies out of here.”
Stores can also get asparagus into the shopper’s mouth through in-store, grab-n-go and deli offerings. “Include asparagus in your ready-to-go, home recipe and prepared food counters,” says Eagle. “Let consumers experience the flavors, recipes and convenience of asparagus.”
Redner’s features asparagus prominently in its line of overwrapped, pre-cut, grab-n-go items. “Our No. 1 seller is cut asparagus with whole garlic cloves,” says Cotê. “We clean the asparagus, break it down to a third- or half-pound, cut the butts off and overwrap it in a tray. It’s all done in-house and we offer with or without the garlic. It’s a great seller for people who don’t want the whole bunch of asparagus. Shoppers are willing to pay the price-per-pound increase for convenience.”
8. Handle Well And Frequently
A crucial step during the entire process is to ensure the display is well maintained with the freshest, highest quality product. “Asparagus should be bright-looking with closed, firm tips,” says Lleras-Bush. “The butt-end should be cleanly cut and sufficiently hydrated.”
Eagle notes that suppliers encourage maintaining the cold chain as much as possible. “Keep product refrigerated and hydrated,” he says. “Keep value-added packaged product away from misters. If you offer an end cap promotion, bring product back into refrigeration as soon as possible.”
Hydration, proper rotation and management of product is fundamental to sales. “Keep product firm, fresh and green,” says Cotê. “We always cull in the morning for inferior tips. We also trim the ends 1/16 inch every day, so it doesn’t develop the white scab on the bottom. Customers will flip them upside down, look at the ends, and not buy if product has that scab on the bottom. Also, always keep the butt in 2 inches of water so it doesn’t dry out.”
PAIA recommends monitoring the condition of water in display trays and changing it frequently. “In the backroom, keep asparagus cold (34-36 degrees F) and moist (damp room) prior to display,” says Lleras-Bush.
But not all retailers, especially smaller ones, can manage water in displays. At Harbortown, Marrogy doesn’t have the ability to use water or ice to hydrate. “Instead, I manage the product very carefully,” he says. “We check and rotate it often. And, we only put out what we know will sell. I get orders every other day, so I don’t overbuy and instead, keep my product coming in fresh.”