Understanding key drivers behind the proliferation of the tomato category increases sales by targeting merchandising and marketing to meet consumer needs.
In recent decades, the powerhouse tomato category moved from a price-conscious bulk commodity to a bountiful mélange of sizes, colors, production methods and packaging with year-round availability. “Tomatoes have become a destination center,” says Richard Stiles, director of produce and floral for Redner’s Markets in Reading, PA. “They are an important part of meals and the variety provides consumers with options for many other uses.”
With U.S. consumption at around 6.5 billion pounds, according to USDA Economic Research Service data, tomatoes represent significant market share. “Tomatoes remain one of the most consumed produce items in the U.S. — making it a necessity for retail produce departments to have high-quality tomatoes available year-round,” says Dionysios Christou, vice president marketing, Del Monte Fresh Produce North America, Inc., Coral Gables, FL.
As consumption has grown, so has category diversity. “There’s so much more to the category now,” says Rick Feighery, vice president of sales for Procacci Brothers Sales Corp. (parent company of Santa Sweets, Inc.) in Philadelphia. “In any given produce department, you see different sizes, different shapes, different colors, and different packages.”
Jim Darroch, director of marketing for Backyard Farms in Madison, ME, explains the enormous year-round diversity in the category compared to 20 years ago stimulates consumption. “Consumers have more fresh tomato choices today than ever before,” he says. “Providing consumers year-round access to an incredibly versatile fruit is a great asset for any produce department.”
Drive Sales With Variety
Retailers that capitalize on the increasing demand for tomato options by consumers will see sales increase. “Variety drives sales,” says Redner’s Stiles. “Customers will buy more than one type of tomato. New tomatoes are adding sales to the category because customers are using tomatoes for many different purposes.”
This consumer demand spurs innovation in various aspects. “The greenhouse tomato category has been and will be driven by varietal offerings as breeders have come to understand consumer needs better in terms of size, shelf life, texture, firmness and especially flavor,” explains Fried De Schouwer, president of Greenhouse Produce Company in Vero Beach, FL.
According to Dr. Roberta Cook, cooperative extension marketing economist in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at University of California, Davis, CA, differentiation is a key motivator. “Fresh tomato types proliferated as farms pursue product differentiation in a mature market,” she says. “Types now grown solely as ‘field-grown’ include: mature green round tomatoes, vine-ripe round tomatoes, and tomatillos. Products grown under ‘protected production’ include: Beefsteak/round tomatoes with calyx, Tomatoes-on-the-vine (TOV), Campari and other specialties. Both field-grown and protected culture include: grape tomatoes, Romas, cherry and heirloom.”
Statistics collected by Cook from the Nielsen Perishables Group Fresh Facts show decreasing market share for the traditional tomato and increasing interest in the “newer” comers. Field round and hothouse round represent only 14 percent and 13 percent of volume retail category sales respectively. Romas boast 30 percent, and TOV’s capture 23 percent.
“Protected culture tomatoes, including hi-tech and low-tech production, captured the majority of the retail tomato category while field production has retreated to control the foodservice demand,” says De Schouwer.
However, the newcomer Snacking Tomatoes segment captured 20 percent of the category by volume and 31 percent by dollar value, according to Cook’s statistics. “New snacking varieties for the tomato category have been instrumental in expanding the consumption especially for consumers on-the-go and those with busy lifestyles,” says Del Monte’s Christou.
The increasing options present opportunity for retailers to merchandise to specific consumer demand. “The No. 1 suggestion for merchandising tomatoes is for the retailer to understand their customer base and what motivates them to purchase,” says Elijah Booth Ornstein, chief operating officer at Eli & Ali in Brooklyn, NY. “You could have the best tasting tomato in the world but if your customers are driven by price, it won’t matter. Conversely, you could have the cheapest tomato, but if your customers value taste, then price isn’t priority.”
“Product mix depends on the demographics of store customers,” says Ken White, director of sales for the category at Procacci. “For example, if you’re marketing in an upper-middle-class neighborhood, you might have more greenhouse or snacking tomatoes. In the Hispanic markets, we see better movement with Roma over heirlooms. Each store must analyze and assess what people are buying and what they’re not — that’s ultimately what determines your mix.”
Focus On Purpose
Leading retailers and suppliers recommend focusing tomato merchandising on each product’s purpose for the consumer. “You now see a lot more branding to purpose,” says Doug Kling, senior vice president and chief marketing officer for Village Farms in Lake Mary, FL. “Instead of saying, ‘This is a tomato, and it’s 50 cents’; we say, ‘This is a tomato, and here’s what it will do for you.’”
Procacci endorses focusing on usage to encourage multiple purchases. “Promoting functionality encourages people to buy different types of tomatoes,” says White. “You may buy vine-ripe-round tomatoes for a sandwich, but use grapes for snacking.” The old marketing adage of selling the benefit instead of the feature holds true in today’s tomato category. “Attributes of tomatoes are extremely important,” explains Kling. “I want to speak of those attributes important to my customers in my merchandising. Do I need POS on health and wellness, or should I focus on locally grown? Are my customers interested in something hydroponically grown and sustainable? Analyze the benefit you need to highlight to connect with those shoppers.” Redner’s considers the “local” attribute crucial to its tomato merchandising plans. “Local tomatoes are a bigger deal every year,” says Stiles. “Customers are disappointed when the local season is over. Retailers must highlight local production and make a big deal about it.”
During its local season independent retailer Babbs Supervalu in Spencer, IN, sells a high volume of “homegrown” tomatoes. “During summer, all our shoppers care about are slicing tomatoes because of the local aspect,” reports Tina Fisher, assistant produce manager.
Displays should be built to highlight different types and uses. “Tomatoes are displayed differently based on size and consumer desire,” says Roger Riehm, owner/president of Blue Creek Produce in Saint Charles, IL. “Heirloom tomatoes, mixed cherry/grape and specialty tomatoes in a clam shell, as well as pear tomatoes all have a unique look and flavor that should attract consumers to the category and make sales stronger.”
One of the best ways to draw attention to produce is through cross-merchandising. “Tomatoes offer many cross-merchandising opportunities, because they can be combined with a wide variety of items,” says Christou. “We recommend cross-merchandising Del Monte tomatoes with other Del Monte products such as avocados, onions and peppers and with packaged salads, fresh basil, garlic, and dressings. Cross-merchandising tomatoes outside the produce department with non-produce items such as sandwich items, pastas, deli meats, and cheeses such as Mozzarella is also effective.”
Redner’s cross-merchandises with other produce department items in its tomato destination section and also places tomatoes throughout the store. “Cross-merchandising always yields multiple sales,” says Stiles. “We’ll put tomatoes in the pasta aisle and merchandise with olive oil and basil or by the cheese case, usually with basil to suggest use in a Caprese salad. We also put them near the meat case, particularly in the summertime, to use on hamburgers.”
Cross-merchandising also helps draw attention to the category. “Many retailers use the different shapes and colors of specialty tomatoes to separate, draw attention and keep items from blending together,” says Riehm. Del Monte’s Christou emphasizes the significance of the appearance of the category. “Packaging and color play a crucial role in merchandising the product and driving impulse sales,” he says.
Babbs’ Fisher says packaging may draw consumer interest to certain products. “With the Cherubs, the packaging is quite nice and you can see more of the tomatoes than other packaging,” she says. “It seems the packaging catches their eye and stimulates sales.”
“Experiment in cross-merchandising,” advises Ornstein of Eli & Ali. “Try new things and push boundaries. So many great recipes are out there requiring tomatoes. A retailer could do weekly specials based on unique recipes and cross-merchandise profitable products with the tomato display.”
Get Shoppers To Taste
Any good merchandising strategy should not overlook the importance of flavor. “Flavor is at the forefront of everything in food, and we see it so prominently important in tomatoes,” says Procacci’s Feighery.
The best way to communicate flavor is through sampling. “Sampling is extremely important because the proof is in the pudding,” says Kling. “Sample tomatoes with a little bit of sea salt in a cup. When chains sample, they typically see a 30 to 60 percent lift based on the channel, consumer and item. Some chains see even more. If you have something that knocks people over, they’re going to buy it.”
Redner’s is a big proponent of sampling. “We know taste sells,” says Stiles. “Especially when customers haven’t tried newer varieties; for every one you get to sample, you get a new customer.”
However, stores are cautioned to ensure tomatoes are consistently flavorful. “Nothing is more irritating to a consumer than having to pick out a tomato having no idea how long it will last, how it will cut, or what its taste will be from week to week,” says Josh Wanless, vice president of business development at Lucky’s Real Tomatoes in Brooklyn, NY. “Consumers look to our brand to provide a consistent product. Variety and branding are the solution.”
Kling reports most growers have a passion for what they do, and he encourages retailers to source from passionate people. “We grow 80 percent of what we sell in our own facilities,” he says. “We understand what we do when it comes to crop selection and flavor as well as safety, because we’re on top of it with our growers and partner growers.”
Connect With Consumers
Stores can build interest in products by connecting customers with product stories. “A lot of these varieties have great stories behind them,” explains Frank Paone, director of marketing for Procacci. “When you garner interest from consumers with a great backstory and then deliver a great-tasting product, you have a great shot to win them over and provide value to retailers in return.”
Case in point, Procacci’s UglyRipes have a loyal following. “We get emails from consumers thanking us and connecting with us because they love our product,” says Feighery. “A brand has the ability to earn life-long trust with the consumer.” Del Monte suggests eye-catching, useful signage and materials to make connection. “POS should be relevant and creative,” advises Christou. “Signage should always inform consumers about the different usages and occasions for the product. Recipe cards should be placed directly next to the product in order to drive sales.”
Stores can also make a consumer connection through cutting product. “One of the biggest things we can do at store level is to actually cut tomatoes on displays,” says Wanless of Lucky’s. “Watermelon and other fruit categories do this to show how great the fruit looks and smells inside. We highly suggest this since we know our varieties and expert handling always provides a bright red, meaty cutting tomato.”
Stores can also work with supplier-marketers to harness the popularity of social media. “Everyone seems to be a foodie, and everyone loves being on social media,” says Paone. “The best campaigns we’ve seen are those indulging these two joys of life. We get people to post online and share fun pictures and recipes. The best marketing gets your consumers to interact with the product on a deeper level to build a greater connection and better trust with our brand and our team.”
Convey Health And Wellness
Stores are encouraged to place particular attention on the health and wellness aspects of tomatoes. “Awareness of health, wellness and diet is important to today’s consumer,” says Kling of Village Farms. “In the past two to three years, snacking tomatoes have become more popular because people are using them as a healthy alternative to other snack foods.” Redner’s reports a definite advantage for linking health benefits to items. “Promoting wellness benefits for tomatoes increases sales of various types,” says Stiles.
Merchandising wellness incorporates a variety of demographics from seniors to kids. “As the emphasis on healthy lifestyle grows, families reach out to produce for healthier alternatives for their kids,” says De Schouwer of Greenhouse Produce. Though the much-touted demographic currently tends to be the Millennials, Kling cautions merchandisers not to overlook the segment with the most spending power. “Millennials are important for the future, but over 70 percent of the disposable income is in the hands of Baby Boomers,” he says. “The Boomers prioritize health and wellness, so it’s important to not ignore any segment.”
Making The ‘Rounds’
Focus on flavor and purpose to keep traditional tomatoes in the mix.
Although novelties and snackers may hog the spotlight recently, industry marketers still emphasize the importance of carrying more traditional tomatoes in the mix. “Slicers, TOV, beef tomatoes and others are equally as important to carry,” says Dionysios Christou, vice president marketing at Del Monte Fresh Produce North America, Inc. in Coral Gables, FL.
The more traditional tomatoes still hold a place in the market, and retail can utilize them by promoting specific uses. “Beefsteak, round tomatoes and TOVs tend to be used in the summer months when cook out and grill seasons are in full swing,” says Roger Riehm, owner/president of Blue Creek Produce in Saint Charles, IL.
Stores may use certain tomatoes to draw price-conscious consumers. “Roma and round tomatoes are used heavily in ads for price attention to drive customers to stores to buy in bulk quantities,” says Riehm. “TOVs and other specialty tomatoes are priced higher due to less volume.”
Retailers are encouraged to market creatively and think out of season. To promote UglyRipe Heirlooms, Procacci Sales Corp in Philadelphia, previously ran a “taste of summer” campaign in the dead of winter. “There has always been a gripe about finding good winter tomatoes in the Northeast,” says Frank Paone, director of marketing. “This campaign provided POS materials for retailers as well as social interaction and content for consumers. We look back at the success of campaigns such as this and others to determine how we can continue providing value to consumers and added sales to retailers.”
Consumers can also be captivated with the unique look and story of heirlooms. “Heirlooms usually derive from a uniquely shaped, sized, or colored variety of tomato,” says Paone. “It serves as eye candy to garner interest, but the taste brings home the sale. These varieties and brands usually have a great story set in nostalgia behind them, and consumers can be roped in with these interesting facets.”
Due to their outstanding flavor, sampling is a great tool for heirlooms. “Heirlooms are one of my favorites,” says Richard Stiles, director of produce and floral for Redner’s Markets in Reading, PA. “If you can get people to try them, they’ll buy them. I predict greater growth in the heirloom category.”
Tips For Mini’s, Snackers and Specialties
Draw customer attention to these fun and unique tomatoes to sell more.
The fast-growing segments of mini, snacker and specialty tomatoes present great opportunities for retailers to differentiate their tomato display. “We sell more of snacking than the slicing tomatoes,” reports Tina Fisher, assistant produce manager at independent Babbs Supervalu in Spencer, IN. “The cherubs especially are an excellent product. They tend to sell better than regular cherry or grape tomatoes.”
The first step in successful merchandising is visibility, and Procacci Sales Corp. in Philadelphia, emphasizes the importance of this in attracting consumers. “Make sure they show,” advises Frank Paone, director of marketing. “Packages should not be hidden by any other products. The display should not appear cluttered from being stacked up.”
Backyard Farms in Madison, ME, developed a 360-degree merchandiser that can be placed virtually anywhere in the department and still provide the consumer with access to the product from every angle. Jim Darroch, director of marketing, emphasizes one golden rule: “Don’t stack tomato boxes five to six layers high,” he cautions. “Some retailers favor large multi-layered tomato displays to draw consumer attention into the produce department. These displays look nice; however, unless your turnover is extremely fast, your shrink will be high. Two to three layers is the right balance between visual impact and product integrity.”
Snacking and specialty tomato purchases can also be stimulated with recipes and demos. “We found creative, easy-to-make recipes inspire consumers to buy more or try new varieties,” reports Darroch. “There’s no substitute for a successful in-store trial. During in-store sampling of a freshly prepared recipe, we’ve seen consumers take the recipe card and all the ingredients from the display and place them in their cart.”
“Cross-merchandising with recipes is crucial for these products,” says Elijah Booth Ornstein, chief operating officer at Eli & Ali in Brooklyn, NY, regarding snacking and specialty tomatoes. “Education is the No. 1 tool for increasing sales.” The smaller-sized tomatoes are ideal for cross-promotion with salads. “Grape, cherries and specialty tomatoes are used more for salads during the holiday and party seasons,” says Roger Riehm, owner/president of Blue Creek Produce in Saint Charles, IL. Retailers can also promote snacking tomatoes to kids. “If it’s soccer or baseball season, show POS of kids eating snacking tomatoes,” recommends Douglas Kling, senior vice president and chief marketing officer for Village Farms in Lake Mary, FL.
New varieties and packs developed by suppliers offer retailers easy and innovative items to meet consumer demands for flavor and convenience. Del Monte Fresh Produce of Coral Gables, FL, launched its Bon Bon grape tomato in April 2014. “This super sweet tomato comes in two different containers,” says Dionysios Christou, vice president marketing. “The first is a grab-and-go, 5.5-ounce cup. The second alternative is in a 10-ounce proprietary tomato-shaped clamshell with multiple display options for maximum appeal.” Retailers can also attract consumer interest by drawing attention with unique products such as Village Farm’s mini San Marzano. “Unique colors and high-flavor products, such as our heavenly Villagio Marzano, can draw consumers to the tomato display and create something exciting for them,” says Kling.