Originally printed in the January 2019 issue of Produce Business.
Consumers are experimenting beyond traditional white and brown staples and spreading their dollars across all varieties, from big to small.
During the winter months, mushrooms are one of the go-to items for shoppers. On retail shelves, sales increase. As more people prepare home meals, shoppers look for wintertime meals that usually include mushrooms.
Mushrooms are topping food trends lists, thanks to their functional properties. Noting how nutrient-packed mushrooms are springing up everywhere — with consumer searches for mushroom recipes up 64 percent over the previous year — Pinterest named mushrooms one of 2019’s most trendy foods.
Mushrooms are experiencing increasing demand. According to The Mushroom Council, Redwood Shores, CA, for the week ending Nov. 4, 2018, mushrooms were up 6 percent over the prior 52 weeks, outpacing total produce, which increased 3.3 percent over the prior 52 weeks.
“Mushrooms continue to be a major consumer trend,” says Heather Harter, who heads the council’s industry communications. “Clearly, mushrooms are a growing category that have become a household staple. Retailers should be thinking about mushrooms year-round because their shoppers already are.”
To capture sales, retailers and others recommend proper merchandising strategies. “It’s important to commit to the mushroom category because it enhances your overall image,” says Mike O’Brien, vice president of sales and marketing for Monterey Mushrooms, Inc., in Watsonville, CA. “The savvy consumer will shop or eat at establishments that provide a full assortment of mushrooms that will fulfill their recipes or their culinary desires.”
Mushrooms don’t follow seasonal patterns. “Unlike many produce items, every season is mushroom season,” O’Brien says. “We must not forget the mushroom category is also a profit-generator. As the mainstream consumer market embraces fresh mushrooms as a new household staple, category demand over the past several years has been increasing steadily across all categories, including restaurants, schools and retailers,” says O’Brien.
Ideal for entertaining and gatherings such as Super Bowl parties, mushrooms are a highly versatile item that can be incorporated into many recipes, says Greg Sagan, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Giorgio Fresh Co., based in Temple, PA. “Retail produce departments make it a priority to carry mushrooms as consumers are looking to purchase them at this time of year,” he says.
In the past, Wallingford, CT’s Drust Markets, a part of ShopRite of Wallingford, carried only button mushroom varieties. Today, they carry many varieties, says Don Drust, owner. “Mushrooms have become an important item for everyone,” he says. “They have great publicity now. They have improved handling, everything about them. They add a little different color to your department.”
Shoppers specifically seek out mushrooms, says Kevin Donovan, sales manager of Phillips Mushroom Farms, which is headquartered in Kennett Square, PA. “Mushrooms are a critical element in produce departments during the winter,” he says. “They have to be properly merchandised, displayed and promoted. You will definitely see a better response to promotions, as interest is higher in the winter. Through the promotions, retailers can remind the shoppers they have a recipe that calls for mushrooms — let’s try that this week.”
Mushrooms are gaining ground and a vital part of winter retail sales, says Vinnie Latessa, produce director at Heinen’s, Inc., based in Warrensville Heights, OH. “Demand continues to be strong,” he says. “There are so many ways to use them. Between your winter options, when you go into summer, into kabobs, then the blended burger on the grill, you have all these other options. You never quit using them.”
DISPLAY FOR SUCCESS
Although display sizes vary by retail format, store, department size, shopping occasions and number of turns, larger displays can lead to greater awareness and sales, says the Mushroom Council’s Harter. “Many retailers support a clean sightline, without signage,” she says. “However, today’s shoppers are looking for more information, so this creates an opportunity for retailers to provide information, usage ideas and recipes at point of purchase.”
Proper displays are important to effective merchandising and increasing sales. “The appearance and condition of the mushroom display directly impacts how today’s consumers view the produce section and store overall,” says Fred Recchiuti, general manager of Basciani Foods, Inc., based in Avondale, PA.
Effective displays help sell mushrooms. “People shop with their eyes and having in-store point-of-sale material is a great visual addition to the produce department,” says Wilder.
Careful merchandising helps sell mushrooms, says O’Brien. “Sophisticated category management is how retailers optimize their shelf space to maximize their sales and profits in the mushroom category,” he says.
Mushrooms are highly susceptible to improper storage conditions. Regardless of variety or flavor, mushrooms should be stored at 34 degrees and at 90 percent relative humidity, advises O’Brien. “It’s like the Byrds song in the 1960s,” he says. “Turn! Turn! Turn! Mushrooms are highly perishable, even when the cold chain is maintained. Days of supply must be kept at a minimum at the distribution center and the store.”
HELPING INCREASE STORE SALES
Mushrooms work well in cross merchandising. They are merchandised in meat sections for use in kabobs, next to peppers, onions and other vegetables for sautés and are positioned near mixed greens and salads as an ideal complement. “Cross merchandising is available in many ways because mushrooms are such a flexible ingredient in so many recipes,” says Sagan. “If retailers pair mushrooms with other vegetables that go well together, they should see increased sales. It’s all about taking the guesswork out of shopping and cooking for the consumer.”
An easy way to increase incremental sales is by cross merchandising white sliced cleaned mushrooms in the bagged salad section, particularly when bagged salads are promoted in an auxiliary secondary location, advises Monterey Mushrooms’ O’Brien. “A row of sliced mushrooms will fly off the shelf,” he says.
Shoppers who use mushrooms in casseroles or stews or include them with poultry buy more store products, says Phillips Mushroom Farms’ Donovan. “The dollar value of the grocery cart definitely goes up when mushrooms are there,” he says. “There are a lot of options to go with the purchase of mushrooms.”
Retailers can cross-merchandise mushrooms in a variety of ways, says Harter. “In the winter, retailers can present mushrooms outside their regular display area, near the front of the produce department,” she says. “They can set up a mini-display in the meat department, reminding shoppers of the delicious flavor combination mushrooms and meat provide, not just for steaks and ground beef, but also for turkey, pork, chicken and lamb.”
Specialty varieties are experiencing increased interest. While white mushrooms, Baby Bellas and Portabellas represent the highest percentage of Monterey Mushrooms’ sales; many exotics including Oysters, Shiitakes, King Trumpets, Maitake, White Beech, Brown Beech and Enoki also are selling well. “What we are seeing is a shift from white mushrooms to brown mushrooms,” says O’Brien. The latest report from the Mushroom Council shows whites at 60 percent of total mushroom consumption and browns at 33 percent.
VARIETIES INCREASE SALES
For the week ending Nov. 4, specialty mushroom sales increased 19.5 percent while value-added sales jumped 22.8 percent and Cremini mushrooms expanded 8.8 percent over the prior 52 weeks, according to the Mushroom Council. “Retailers should be sure they have more than just the basic varieties in stock,” says Harter. “They can help inform shoppers how they can use specialty varieties, making them feel comfortable working with unfamiliar varieties.”
White Buttons tend to lead in dollar sales during the winter, but retailers also see strong growth across the Cremini and Brown specialty varieties, notes Wilder. “Carrying multiple varieties beyond the White Button and Baby Bellas offer shoppers a nice opportunity to move out of their comfort zone,” he says. “In-store signage describing the various varieties, their flavor, cooking uses and nutritional benefits will give consumers the information to select the variety that suits their needs best.”
Specialty varieties including browns and Shitakes are seeing higher sales and demand, says Donovan. “We are seeing more and more interest in the more exotic Maitake, Pom Poms and Royal Trumpets, but they’re a small part of the total category,” he says.
All groups purchase mushrooms, report marketers. “Mushrooms cross all demographic lines,” says Donovan. “Ethnic groups, adults, Millennials, they are all important.” He says, demand has slowed in the Northeast, while higher sales are happening in the Southeast and West, where poluation is increasing.
CHANGING MUSHROOM SHOPPER
The mushroom buying demographic is changing. According to studies, mushroom buyers possess slightly higher income levels and tend to be more educated, notes O’Brien. “The mushroom consumer likes to cook and values the flavor of mushrooms,” he says. “They also tend to be more focused on health and wellness due to the nutritional value of mushrooms.”
The changing variety landscape is helping boost sales. “Total mushroom category dollar sales growth is driven by Brown mushrooms. The conversion from White Button mushrooms to Brown mushrooms continues. If you love mushroom pizzas a Portabella makes your pizza, even better. It’s the Baby Bella that continues to grow and in some areas outsells white mushrooms,” says O’Brien.
Younger shoppers are also big purchasers. “Millennials are quick to find the value of mushrooms as a healthy alternative to meat and a wonderful accompaniment to meats and other vegetables,” says Harter of the Mushroom Council.
Drust Markets sells large baskets of stuffing mushrooms, which are almost the size of a fist. That makes a big difference, says Drust. “People are cutting them up, putting them in salads and sautéing them. People make hearty meals with them and cook them with eggs, all the different things they use them for.”
Mushrooms are adaptable to many meals and fit in well with dining, especially among friends and family. “Mushrooms stuffed with crab for holiday party hors d’oeuvres are always a hit,” says Basciani’s Recchiuti. “Mushrooms are so versatile they fit into every daypart meal or snack.”
That versatility helps sales, says Heinens’ Latessa. “Everybody has the ovens turned on, whether they’re making soups, stews, stir-frys, sautéing or throwing a steak or roast. Mushrooms, they’re the item,” he says. “They’re always part of the meal year round, whether in a salad or on the grill. Mushrooms are a main stay on consumers’ lists. They’re not going away. It’s not stopping. It’s highly important in the winter.”
PROMOTE HEALTH AND SENSORY ATTRIBUTES
Mushrooms play an important role in winter health when people tend to stay indoors, which makes getting enough Vitamin D difficult, says Fred Recchiuti, general manager of Basciani Foods, Inc., based in Avondale, PA. “Mushrooms are rich in umami, which produces a comforting savory taste and a feeling of satiation,” he says. “Mushrooms are the only source of vitamin D in the produce aisle. Mushrooms are fat-free, low-calorie, nutrient-dense, low in sodium and contain natural antioxidants.”
Mushrooms’ sensory attributes also attract shoppers. “With their earthy, nutty flavors, mushrooms are a perfect ingredient for winter favorites and shoppers look to them when browsing through the produce department,” says Peter Wilder, marketing director of To-Jo Mushrooms, Inc., in Avondale.
During the winter, displays should be significant, with sections at least six to eight feet, advises Kevin Donovan, sales manager of Phillips Mushroom Farms, which is headquartered in Kennett Square, PA. Larger displays catch consumer attention and meet daily volume demand moving through the shelves, he says. Frequent promotions are also important. “Make sure you do at least two promotions a month, maybe even throw in a loyalty card promotion once a month on an organic or specialty item,” says Donovan.
The easier that a retailer makes the purchasing process for consumers, the more likely they will make it for consumers to make a purchase, advises Greg Sagan, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Giorgio Fresh Co., Temple, PA. Retailers should personalize merchandising based on the chain’s shopper base and purchasing patterns. Although some retailers are using space effectively, a complete category review makes strategic sense to determine the effectiveness of the use of shelf space and would include reviewing shrink and lost sales, he says.
“Space allocation is extremely important in the mushroom category,” says Sagan. “The retailer should have a feel for what customers are looking for. It can be a great opportunity to do some simple testing with expanded sets to see and compare results. If there are too many SKUs and not enough space, sales will be challenged.”