Heat Up Fall Produce Sales

jack-o-lanternPhoto Courtesy of Bay Baby Produce Inc./A.M.F. Farms

The seasonal harvest brings an abundance of fresh, flavorful fruits and vegetables.

Bright Fresh Microgreens

Photo Courtesy of Fresh Origins

The cornucopia of seasonal and new crop produce available in the fall makes these traditionally cooler weather months a hot time to sell more produce. For example, consider that just 10 categories of autumn staples — apples, bell peppers, cranberries, grapes, herbs, kiwifruit, pears, pumpkins, sweet potato and winter squash — represented more than one-fifth (20.4 percent) of total produce dollar sales in fourth-quarter 2016, according to FreshFacts data supplied by Chicago-based Nielsen Perishables Group.

The key to maximizing sales this time of year is to give shoppers what they want.

“One of the enjoyable parts of being a routine fresh produce shopper is the changing of the seasons and the differing product availability that goes with it,” says Earl McGrath, produce director for Freshfields Farm, a two-store retailer based in Orlando, FL.

“In the fall, I think customers are looking primarily for two things: high-quality items for cooler weather cooking and ornamental items for display throughout their homes.”

Here are some ways retailers can move autumn produce throughout the season.

Apples. New harvest fall apples are a best-seller at Redner’s Markets, a Reading, PA, chain with 44 markets and 13 quick shoppes in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware. “We offer bagged apples for back-to-school, totes of apples for eating and baking, as many different apple varieties as we can get, as well as tie-in items such as caramel wraps, caramel dip and apple crisp,” says Richard Stiles, director of produce and floral.

Just in time for fall merchandising, Concord Foods is extending its line of clean label fruit dips, branded Simply Concord, to include organic caramel and chocolate fruit dips, according to Samantha McCaul, marketing manager for the Brockton, MA-based company. “For back-to-school time, feature dip snack packs with the apple display. For Halloween and Thanksgiving, create prominent displays using Apple Crisp Mix, Caramel Dip and apples. We have a Halloween-themed shipper available, which is always a lot of fun to see in stores.”

New York-grown apples are a big hit with customers at Tops Markets, a 173-store chain headquartered in Williamsville, NY. “We carry just about every variety of New York apple, including Empire, Cortland, Macintosh, Red Delicious, Crispin, Honeycrisp, Snap Dragon, Ruby Frost, Macoun, Gala; the list goes on and on,” says Jeff Cady, director of produce and floral. “In the fall, we move apples to what we call the ‘1st Seasonal Run.’ Basically, other than promo-type displays, this is the primary feature. Apples are in every weekly circular ad in some form, be it bulk, bagged or specialty. Customers are looking, so we make it easy.”

Football Platters

Photo Courtesy of Redner’s Markets

To get customers to expand their purchase, Cynthia Haskins, president and chief executive of the New York Apple Association in Fishers, NY, suggests hosting an Applepalooza. “That is, feature a different variety each week on Facebook, your blog or other social channels. Think outside the (apple) box, too, by extending apple merchandising beyond the produce department to the front checkouts and salad bar. For the holidays, suggest an apple-themed Thanksgiving meal featuring apples and cider from the starting soup course to the apple pie for dessert.”

In October, Okanagan Specialty Fruits Inc., Summerland, British Columbia, Canada, will commercially debut its Arctic-brand naturally non-browning apples in select supermarkets. This year, 10-ounce grab-and-go bags of Arctic Golden apple slices will be exclusively available.

“We estimate this year’s crop will be about 250,000 pounds of Arctic Goldens; however, expect rapidly increasing volume as we ramp up production, including additional non-browning varieties,” says Neal Carter, president. “We have a wealth of infographics, recipe cards, including seasonal and holiday themed content, and much more to assist interested retailers. In addition, we are working with our retail partners on in-store activities to draw consumer attention to our apples that don’t need any anti-browning treatments, which can affect flavor and texture.”

According to Alex Jackson Berkley, senior account manager at Frieda’s Specialty Produce in Los Alamitos, CA, some 18th century-old, organically grown heirloom apple varieties, including Ashmead’s Kernel, Cox’s Orange Pippin, King David, Orleans Reinette and Roxbury Russet, are each available for retail during one- to two-week windows in the fall. “Since each variety harvests at a different time, we suggest merchandising the apples on a dedicated end cap to showcase an ever-changing offering. We provide retailers with an 8×11-inch display sign that identifies the varieties to educate and to encourage shoppers to try something new each week,” says Berkley.

Bell Peppers. Sweet mini-peppers are perfect for back-to-school lunchboxes and holiday party trays, while regular-sized bell peppers are a versatile ingredient in many cool-weather dishes, according to Brian Miller, director of business development at Prime Time International in Coachella, CA. “We have very good availability in the fall, with red and green bell peppers most popular, followed by yellow and orange.”

The bell pepper can complement a variety of meals throughout the fall as its sweetness brings back summer garden-like flavors, says Chris Veillon, former director of marketing for Leamington, Ontario, Canada-based NatureFresh Farms and currently chief marketing officer for Pure Hothouse Foods, Leamington, Canada. “A number of retailers in the Midwest build displays of bell peppers near the entrance to the produce department to spawn ideas of what products could be used in addition to the peppers. Sampling is always a hit at retail, so consumers can recognize the different tastes by color.”

Cranberries. Fresh cranberries start harvest in late September, with 55 to 60 percent of the crop sold in November and 25 percent in December, according to Bob Wilson, owner and managing director of the Cranberry Network and Cranberry Partners in Wisconsin Rapids, WI. “We’re seeing a gradual increase in demand for organic cranberries. There will be somewhat of a supply increase this fall with a big bump expected in 2018.”

October is when Redner’s Markets brings in and promotes fresh cranberries. “We have them out every week in the build-up to Thanksgiving. We place them in two places: the fruit case next to the berries, and the vegetable case next to celery,” says Stiles.

Cranberry promotions don’t stop after Thanksgiving at Tadych’s Econofoods, a six-store chain headquartered in Brillion, WI. “We recommend customers buy two bags and freeze one for when fresh cranberries aren’t available,” says Jim Weber, produce supervisor.

Sharon Newcomb, senior public relations specialist at Middleboro, MA-based Ocean Spray Cranberries Inc., suggests promoting the culinary versatility of fresh cranberries. “There are many ways to incorporate cranberries into fall holiday meals. The best way to do this is by offering recipe tear pads, recipes and ads in fliers and usage suggestions as part of a display,” she says. This season Ocean Spray will introduce a 1-pound gusseted bag for better merchandising.

Last year, fresh cranberries were featured in a recipe on the weekly ad circular’s produce page at Jewel-Osco, a 185-store chain headquartered in Itasca, IL, as part of the retailer’s supermarket dietitian marketing effort called Build a Better Basket. Along with the ad feature, several other promotional activities included a recipe post on the retailer’s What’s Cookin’ blog, an article in the quarterly newsletter, Dietitian, and in-store recipe signage and demos. The result was a 9 percent increase in units sold when compared to the same week the previous year, according to supermarket dietitians Samantha Woulfe, MS, RD, LDN and Melissa O’Brien, MS, RD, LDN.

Starting this fall, Wareham, MA-based Cranberry Marketing Committee (CMC) will expand its fresh cranberry footprint in-store by bridging into floral departments. “Beyond food, fresh cranberries are a decorative secret weapon,” says Michelle Hogan, executive director. “With their bright-hued reds and pearl-like shape, cranberries enhance tablescapes, brighten floral and candle arrangements, and bejewel wreaths and garlands. To help, the CMC is developing a new handout and video educating shoppers how they can enhance their store-bought floral arrangements with fresh cranberries. These resources will be free and available for all retailers to use this fall.”

Grapes. “We expect a substantial volume of red, green and black grapes this fall, and heavy promotions during this time that highlight some of the 92 varieties (and growing) grown in California,” says Andy Kampa, grape category manager for Robinson Fresh, Eden Prairie, MN. “It is important to include organic grapes in fall displays because our research shows growth in organic grapes of 15 percent annually.”

The company’s primary fall grape advertising campaign centers on back-to-school. “This year, we are producing both random weight back-to-school bags and clamshells. We are excited to have a connection to the second-largest shopping period of the year by drawing consumers to the produce department to round out their back-to-school shopping experiences,” says Kampa.

Nick Dulcich, co-owner and president of Delano, CA-headquartered Sunlight International Sales Inc., which promotes its Harvest Hobgoblin grapes for the fall and Pretty Lady for the winter holidays, says to take advantage of supply by building big, well-stocked, well-maintained displays at the front of the produce department. “Cross-merchandise display bins in the wine and cheese departments to entice customers shopping for holiday parties.”

Herbs And Microgreens. “Expand your fresh herb set to include oregano, sage and thyme for the Thanksgiving holiday,” says Robert Schueller, director of public relations for Melissa’s/World Variety Produce in Los Angeles. “Offer conventional and organic. Organic herbs were a non-existent category a decade ago. Now, we’re seeing a great increase year-round, especially of oregano, sage, thyme and marjoram in the fall.”

Make sure to have ample supplies of fresh herbs on display, says Chris Wada, marketing manager for Thermal, CA-based North Shore Greenhouses Inc., which grows and markets 22 herbs with roots intact for three times longer shelf life than herbs without roots, as well as products such as Poultry Delights, a combination of rosemary, sage and thyme either mixed together in a clamshell or available as a trio of single potted herbs. “Our clamshell-packed living herbs sell four times the normal volume weekly between Thanksgiving and Christmas,” says Wada.

“Expand your fresh herbs set to include oregano, sage and thyme for the Thanksgiving holiday. Offer conventional and organic.”

— Robert Schueller, Melissa’s World Variety Produce

Wada says an out-of-the-box selling technique is to create a “living wall” display of herbs, lettuces and other roots-on produce. Beyond this, the company offers a variety of secondary display units, ranging from tabletop shippers and rolling units to wire racks.

Cross-merchandising is an ideal way to sell more microgreens in the fall, says David Sasuga, owner of Fresh Origins in San Marcos, CA. “Microgreens are a great basket-builder. That’s because consumers who purchase are usually planning for a special meal that would also include other high-quality, high-value components like fresh salmon, steak and good wine. Retailers can illustrate using microgreens to elevate a special meal with images, videos and demos. In-store and circular ads can contribute to greater sales.”

Kiwifruit. Merchandise bulk and packaged kiwifruit alongside each other to meet the needs of a variety of customers, recommends Jason Bushong, Wenatchee, WA-based division manager at Giumarra Companies. Some shoppers may be purchasing kiwifruit as a specialty item, while others consider it a staple, seasonal item for fall lunch boxes. Bulk kiwifruit sold by the pound versus per piece demonstrates a sales lift.”

Bushong also suggests promoting kiwifruit with attractive pricing and a value-added element, such as kiwifruit ‘spife’ (spoon + knife) tools packaged in clamshells. The company offers pink spifes that can be used to promote Breast Cancer Awareness Month during October.

“Two- and three-pound bagged pears are the fastest-growing part of the category, and since the fruit is usually smaller, it’s great for back-to-school lunches.”

— Kathy Stephenson, Pear Bureau Northwest

Imports of Zespri-brand kiwifruit are customarily in the market until mid-November, although the New Zealand-headquartered company is working to extend this, according to Sarah Deaton, the Newport Beach, CA-based marketing manager for Zespri North America. “We will partner with Produce for Kids’ fall Power Your Lunchbox pledge promotion this fall, which encourages healthy eating and benefits Feeding America.”

Deaton recommends retailers promote kiwi at Thanksgiving to give the holiday menu a new twist. The company offers recipe cards for a SunGold Kiwi and Cranberry Relish.

Pears. The peak season when all 10 pear varieties are available is from October to January, according to the marketing organization Pear Bureau Northwest, Milwaukie, OR. However, says Kathy Stephenson, director of marketing communications, “Pears from the Northwest begin arriving in September in measurable amounts. Two- and three-pound bagged pears are the fastest-growing part of the category, and since the fruit is usually smaller, it’s great for back-to-school lunches. For Halloween, we have a fun sticker set for decorating pears that retailers can order from us for their customers. Thanksgiving is peak pear season and we encourage cross-merchandising with cranberries, yams, potatoes, salads and more.”

Stephenson adds the overall best way to increase impulse purchases, especially in the fall, is multi-variety ads. Average pricing across the varieties gives shoppers the incentive to try new varieties, she says.

Just-harvested freshness and flavor is one reason why Tops Markets’ Cady likes to promote pears in the fall. “Pears are really driven by the Bartlett, but both Bosc and Anjou are great pears — just a little harder for customers to judge ripeness. Check the neck is a great rule, but communicating is always a challenge. Reds, Concorde and Comice are nice additions, although they don’t move as well; it’s the same for Seckel and Forelle, they move very slowly.”

Pumpkins. “Bin displays of assorted pumpkins set at the store’s entrance can prompt shoppers to put $20-plus worth of produce in their cart before even going inside,” says Jason Kazmirski, director of produce and floral for Tukwila, WA-based Northwest Grocers, which serves 120-plus independent retailers operating under banners such as Thriftway, Red Apple Markets and Select Markets.

Freshfields Farm’s McGrath says his stores take pride in merchandising mass displays of fresh product. “Our biggest display item in the fall is always the largest carving pumpkins that we source with good external quality and thick stems from farms in Pennsylvania and Ohio. As for specialty items, we typically will carry pie pumpkins, white and orange mini pumpkins, native ornamental corns, a variety of ornamental gourds, assorted hard squashes and corn stalks. We also try to have one decorative pumpkin for outside of each store that is 150 to 200 pounds in size.”

Plan to get pumpkins no later than mid-September to maximize sales, recommends Michele Youngquist, president of Bay Baby Produce Inc./A.M.F. Farms in Burlington, WA. “New this year, we have white and orange pumpkins with silhouette designs on them that just pop when displayed together, as well as our long-stem Sparkler, Tiger and Casper ornamentals. We offer bin merchandisers that have header cards at the top that show easy home decorating ideas. In addition, retailers should cross-merchandise pumpkins in floral.”

Sweet Potatoes. Thanksgiving remains the largest selling holiday for sweet potatoes, despite year-round availability, says George Wooten, president and owner of Wayne E. Bailey Produce Company Inc., in Chadbourn, NC. “Twenty years ago, we’d sell 25 to 30 percent of the crop in November. Today, it’s 15 to 18 percent. This isn’t because of any lost volume on the Thanksgiving holiday, but the fact that sales have picked up in other months of the year.”

Starting with a new crop in October, sweet potatoes are sold in storefront bins along with Brussels sprouts, Russet potatoes and Acorn squash by the Northwest Grocers independent retailers, according to Kazmirski. “The stores will also sell loose organic and 3-pound bags of conventional sweet potatoes inside the produce department.”

Larger displays and loss leader pricing is how Tadych’s Econofoods merchandises sweet potatoes in November. “We move 10 times the usual amount in the run up to Thanksgiving this way,” says Weber.

Shoppers looking for something different this holiday are attracted to products such as conventional and organic Stokes Purple sweet potatoes, according to Frieda’s Berkley. “We recommend retailers start carrying the produce in September as part of their fall reset. Display between Russets and sweet potatoes for an eye-catching color break. Sign ‘delicious when roasted’ to let shoppers know how easy they are to cook. For Thanksgiving, we suggest cross-merchandising with fresh herbs and shallots.”

Winter Squash. “Hard winter squash is the new item now in addition to pumpkins, for both decorating and eating,” says Youngquist. “Promote both at the same time.”

Varietal winter squash such as Buttercup, Carnival, Delicata, Gold Nugget, Hubbard, Red Kuri, Sweet Dumpling and Turban are only available from August to December, according to Melissa’s Schueller. “This offers retailers the opportunity to expand their winter squash offerings up to a dozen varieties. Start bringing winter squash in during August; peak sales months are September and October.”

To make it easy to highlight many winter squash, Frieda’s offers a pallet-sized mixed variety bin in both organic and conventionally grown squash. “Or, retailers can start with five varieties of winter squash displayed on an end cap, for example, and rotate other types in and out through the season to see what works best for their customers,” says Berkley.