Eye Appeal Is Buy Appeal

Originally printed in the March 2020 issue of Produce Business.

By Rick Stein

Read Jim Prevor’s Commentary below

You eat with your eyes first.

Remember that expression? It may be an oldie, but it’s a goodie, at least when it comes to consumers’ ongoing purchase habits, including their choice of fresh produce.

Visual appeal may be even more important in this category, in fact, than in other types of foods, fresh or packaged. Like many (most?) shoppers, I’ve been known to take my time picking out an avocado or a bunch of bananas, based on what appeals to me at first glance. It’s less about perfection – what is “perfect” produce, anyway? It’s more about personal interest.

Beyond individual packages or pieces, the attractiveness of the fresh produce department and other places where fresh produce is sold is an important consideration, too. Often, when I walk through a store that has an obvious focus on its produce displays, I can’t help but notice and admire the meticulous way that certain items are arranged.

The multisensory appeal of fresh produce is underscored in the new Power of Produce 2020 report, published by the FMI, The Food Industry Association, and conducted by 210 Analytics. According to this new report, 43% of produce sales is sold on merchandising. Breaking it down by produce type, it’s 45.3% for vegetables sales and 40.6% for fruit.

Produce that catches someone’s eye can also garner a new sale. The Power of Produce findings show 83% of shoppers who plan their produce purchases before their trip also buy unplanned items. What’s more, 58% of those shoppers attribute their pickup of unplanned items to eye-catching displays. Impulse buys, often based on visual appeal, lift baskets and generate interest in more or different types of fresh produce.

Beyond individual packages or pieces, the attractiveness of the fresh produce department and other places where fresh produce is sold is an important consideration, too.

The importance of appearance in influencing decisions is also evident in the number of consumers who look to highly visual channels to get ideas for buying and using fresh produce. According to the Power of Produce, 30% of shoppers visit Pinterest as a source of meal inspiration, 28% watch YouTube videos, and 18% get ideas from Instagram. In fact, the Power of Produce report suggests retailers add their online and social media platforms to their in-store merchandising efforts, as a way to create “Instagrammable moments.” Inside the store, signage is another visual cue for shoppers, shown in FMI’s latest report to be relevant across all demographics.

In another form of “seeing is believing,” today’s shoppers want to know more about how fresh produce is grown, and often look to in-store signage or on-package information for more details. That’s especially true for younger generations: 69% of Gen Z shoppers, 54% of younger Millennials and 39% of older Millennials want information on growing practices. That compares to 34% of Gen Xers and 30% of Baby Boomers. So consumers are both looking and reading as they make choices.

Ultimately, creative merchandising, combined with an enticing array of products, will be key to sustaining and growing the produce category. It’s a big one, to be sure; the Power of Produce confirms that produce is indeed influential, with nearly 100% penetration and $60.8 billion in sales. It’s also lucrative, as a driver of higher store trips and basket rings.

But there’s a caveat, as evidenced by the more recent pattern of declining sales, notable even with a slight rebound in 2019. This underscores the importance of innovation in a mature category amidst a lot of competition, particularly in the broadening realm of plant-based eating that encompasses other types of products and categories.

In today’s increasingly visual and digital marketplace, growers, packers and retailers can and should add eye appeal to their innovation efforts that complement the “musts” of quality and taste. That extends to produce type, packaging and the many facets of merchandising across all locations and platforms.

Rick Stein is vice president, fresh foods, for the

(FMI). Follow him @Ricks_FreshFood. Visit www. FMI.org/FreshFoods, www.FMI.org/Store.

There’s More To It Than Merchandising

By Jim Prevor

Beautiful merchandising is, indeed, prized as an inducement for maximizing purchase behavior. Yet, you may see a different perspective if you go to an Aldi store that is allowed to sell down daily and whose manager, when approached by a shopper complaining about the condition of a display, might simply respond that “the early bird gets the worm” and suggests the shopper return at opening time tomorrow.

The truth is the intersection of merchandising and marketing is not a simple thing. Perhaps sustaining a beautiful, high quality and comprehensive offering all day serves to reduce consumer feelings of urgency to shop there. So, perhaps an Aldi — where consumers find they will sell down the display — becomes the priority “first stop” on the day’s shopping trip? We don’t really know.

Increasingly, though, it seems that if we add the idea that Aldi offers a significantly lower price point without sacrificing food quality, then the attractiveness of the discount offer to consumers is strong. In the Netherlands, the German-based Lidl was voted the best retailer in produce for five consecutive years — a fact most frustrating to the Dutch-headquartered Ahold, parent of Food Lion, Giant, Hannaford and Stop & Shop, among others.

Merchandising is exceptionally important, but the way in which it appeals is uncertain. Beautiful displays, with each piece of fruit wrapped in tissue paper, color breaks carefully considered, etc. — all this and more can attract customers to buy. But beautiful displays can look so artful that consumers may not want to disturb them. A display at a discount store — with boxes ajar, trays from cartons thrown asunder — all this can make a consumer think there is an incredible deal to be gotten.

Surely, produce vendors are excited consumers get recipe ideas online, and they surely would welcome the idea of stores making more efforts to entice consumers to buy. But it is also true that a large part of the produce section is fruit primarily consumed as snacks — bananas, apples, Clementines, etc. — and so recipes aren’t the key promotional tool.

It is also true the produce industry increasingly offers specially bred options. How many of these promotions are tied in with the need to sell not just grapes, but Cotton Candy or Autumn Crisp grapes?

The reality is that people understand they should eat more fresh produce conceptually — and, if asked, they say they want to — but this is not driving more produce consumption.

It is easy to say consumers want all kinds of information. After all, when surveyed, how many consumers would deny interest in produce-growing practices? Yet, the largest retailer of produce in the United States is Walmart, and the fastest growing are Aldi and Lidl – not Whole Foods! That doesn’t seem to imply that consumer information about produce-growing practices, or great merchandising techniques, are the key variables in produce purchasing.

The $64,000 question is what role merchandising and assortment actually play in consumer selection. With Walmart dominant and the deep discounters growing faster than supermarkets, and online being a rapid grower itself, one wonders if price and unique levels of convenience aren’t pinching traditional supermarkets, Ultimately price and convenience will push the traditional supermarket into deep trouble.

As Rick Stein points out, produce is a very big business, but it’s also true it is somewhat challenged. On the vegetable side, salads have, again and again, been found at the center of food safety outbreaks. And while there is a large array of other vegetables available and delicious, many require a level of cooking ability and willingness to prepare that is not common today.

There is an explosion of new produce varieties, but most are poorly marketed, certainly to consumers. It is distressing that so much delicious fruit is not gaining a consumer identity. The same thing applies to many fresh-cut items. It is great that value-added items are currently cutting-edge in produce, but most score only a very small market share.

Plant-based eating also sounds exciting but is often being used to sell “plant based” hamburgers that have no real connection to the produce industry.

The truth is attractive product still sells. But people need to know how to cook it, want to cook it and understand when to consume. The reality is people understand they should eat more fresh produce conceptually — and, if asked, they say they want to — but this is not driving more produce consumption.

The increases we see at retail are substantially driven by higher prices for better varieties and year-round supplies. The challenge for the industry is to get consumers interested in better varieties, year-round and in higher quantities. Shoppers know produce is good for them and their children. We need consumers to eat with their eyes, and also their brains.