Powerhouse Produce Item: Almonds

Whether they are whole, raw, roasted, salted, sweetened, coated, slivered or sliced, almonds sold in produce lend themselves to myriad stand-alone or tie-in sales opportunities.

Originally printed in the April 2021 issue of Produce Business.

Almonds can continue to be a powerhouse in the produce department, but it is up to retailers to beat the drum loudly about their health benefits and versatility and to merchandise adroitly. As the needs of today’s consumers evolve, almonds possess undeniable appeal, aligning with growing demand for plant-based foods, holistic and personalized nutrition, and exciting sensory experiences.

Retailers who emphasize almonds’ best-in-class nutritional appeal and endless at-home applications will continue to drive sales.

“In the past, whole raw almonds found in produce were primarily marketed and promoted as a baking ingredient,” says Katharine Hawkins, marketing director for Good Sense Foods in New Hope, MN. “Today, we are seeing a consistent growth trend toward healthy eating and healthy lifestyles, and the general consumer continues to be educated on the great health benefits that almonds offer.”

Produce, she is convinced, is transitioning to a destination for not only fresh items but for healthy snacks that consumers can incorporate into their daily lives. “Almonds are a well-known, versatile nut that is becoming a staple between-meal snack item, so consequently is a great every-day promotion.”

Reliable Built-in Health Halo

According to the Almond Board of California’s 2019 Global Perceptions Study, surveyed U.S. consumers selected almonds as the healthiest nut and associated almonds with attributes related to health, nutrition and energy.

“Almonds appeal to a wide variety of consumers for multiple reasons,” notes Harbinder Maan, associate director of trade marketing and stewardship at the Modesto, CA-based Almond Board, “one of which involves their well-rounded nutrient package and resulting healthy halo. Retailers can emphasize almonds’ many health benefits to inform the choices of a growing number of consumers who are seeking healthier, guilt-free and plant-based foods.”

One of the messages the Board trumpets is that almonds fit many dietary needs and preferences, including dairy-free, gluten-free, vegan, vegetarian, keto, paleo and Whole30. “In general, health claims are featured more frequently on new product introductions with almonds versus total food introductions,” Maan points out. “For consumers seeking an easy, natural approach to nutrition, almonds are whole food ingredient with an expansive nutrient package including six grams of protein and four grams of fiber per every one ounce serving, along with antioxidant vitamin E, essential fatty acids and polyphenols.”

The current database of research on almond benefits includes over 180 studies spanning gut health, cardiovascular health, weight management, skin health and more, she adds.

Darryl Bollack, regional sales manager for Mariani Nut Co., in Winters, CA, says he sees almonds continuing to gain recognition as a healthy snack option. Merchandising them in clear bags near bananas, apples, or any other value-added produce item is “ideal for impulse sales.”

There are a few key times of the year to promote almonds. One is during the month of January, when people are intent on keeping their New Year’s resolution to eat healthier and add protein to their diets. Another is June, when people are thinking about fitting into their summer apparel. Traffic is also brisk during back-to-school season in August and September when parents are looking for healthy on-the-go snacks. The holiday seasons cap off the year when almonds can be used for cooking and toppings.

Almonds offer “a myriad of great health attributes that could benefit most anyone at any age,” says Hawkins of Good Sense Foods, “so marketing campaigns do not need to be demographic-specific. Almonds are a source of antioxidants, fiber, protein and Vitamin E, may help with blood sugar control, better sleep, can satisfy hunger, and are a source of magnesium, which can benefit blood pressure levels.”

While retailers appear to be transitioning to include almonds as a snack item found in produce, Hawkins suggests that they should continue to promote the healthy attributes of almonds to educate the consumer on the benefits.

With consumer mindfulness reaching new heights, the Board believes, almonds’ associated benefits are being used as an asset when marketing to consumers. As more consumers become interested in the idea of “beauty from the inside out” and the ways in which diet and functional foods can contribute to skin health, Maan say recent research from the University of California-Davis “suggests that daily almond consumption might benefit certain skin types by improving measures of wrinkle severity and reducing skin pigmentation. Almonds are rich in antioxidant vitamin E, which may protect cells from the damaging effects of free radicals, UV rays from the sun, and other environmental and intrinsic factors.”

Screaming with Versatility

Second only to health in consumers’ minds is almonds’ versatility, a story produce department merchandisers can tell effectively. Available in more forms than any other tree nut, according to Maan, they are an essential ingredient with “endless texture and flavor potential, as well as a long shelf life when stored in the proper conditions.”

Whole almonds are frequently consumed in snacking and can be seasoned, coated or enrobed in on-trend flavors to cater to personal tastes and increase consumer appeal. For example, a recipe for pickled plum-tangerine almonds found on the Almond Board’s website, combines the sweet-citrusy taste of tangerine and pickled plum, and their coating also results in an eye-catching, natural purple color.

Retailers can communicate to consumers that whole and chopped almonds are an ideal salad ingredient, offering a nutritious and satisfying crunch with six grams of power-packed protein per every one-ounce serving. Says Maan, “It’s important to note that almonds are an ideal complementary ingredient in protein-rich pairings with other popular plant-based ingredients like legumes, lentils and pulses. Almonds can also be roasted to deepen their color and flavor profile while adding an even crispier, crunchier texture.”

Sliced and slivered almonds also are commonly incorporated as toppings or inclusions for visual appeal and texture, adds Maan.

Value-added almonds — dark chocolate covered, milk chocolate covered, yogurt covered and seasoned — are a great complement to traditional raw almonds and roasted-and-salted product. While unit sales of such value-added items don’t match the raw and roasted almonds, Hawkins of Good Sense points out, they are a good complement that can build out the overall category. “New products like Trader Joe’s almond butter almonds — roasted, salted almonds covered in a sweetened butter coating — are hitting the market and expanding the horizon for almonds.”

Almond slivers are traditional used as a baking ingredient, but almond slices, particularly ones that are seasoned or caramelized, are popular at retail produce sections as a salad and vegetable topping, or simply as an everyday snack item. “Value-added, coated almonds and almond slivers offer consumers a different application for adding a healthy crunch to their salads, green beans and favorite desserts,” adds Hawkins. “Holiday shippers merchandised near these items always create impulse sales for cross-merchandising.” These almonds are almost always best merchandised with any other value-added produce department item, from fresh-cut fruit to carrots to bagged salads.

Mariani’s Bollack notes that one California retailer has seen sales of snack almonds rise by nearly 48% in its produce department with dedicated racks. Bollack notes that the Almond Board provides Mariani with yearly point-of-sale materials to call out the nuts’ attributes.

Displays and Packaging Draw Attention

One of the best ways to merchandise almonds in the produce department, says Hawkins, is in an attractive floor display “which allows the product to be the ‘hero’ supported by an eye-catching header boasting nutritional benefits and usages.” The produce department “is all about the visual experience and product transparency to the consumer. It is important to have product visibility through a window or clear tamper-evident tubs.”

Another must-have, in Hawkins’ view, is convenient packaging that can easily transition throughout the department as it sells down. Her own company’s almonds come packaged in a standup resealable bag and peg-hole, allowing product to transition from a floor shipper to a shelf or clip-strip/peg if space is available.

Hawkins has found that an effective way to market almonds, and particularly sliced almonds, in produce is showcasing product as a salad or vegetable topper. “Sliced almonds can be marketed as a crouton or bacon-bit alternative, offering the consumer a healthy delicious option.” Indeed, retailers can create a sub-destination within produce for healthy snacking/lifestyle in which raw almonds and value-added whole almonds — both organic and conventional — can be featured with other healthy snack items.

Almonds can and should be promoted throughout the year as a healthy everyday snack item. Sliced almonds can be additionally promoted as a salad topper year-round, and at times when salad season is being promoted.

“From a merchandising perspective, displaying sliced almonds as a salad topper near the fresh produce helps the consumer with an easy shopping direction,” Hawkins says. Sliced almonds, such as the company’s line of toppings, Salad Pizazz, provide recipes on the back of each bag so the consumer can grab some greens and a bag of sliced almonds to create a quick, healthy meal or side.

Retailers can cross-merchandise almonds near vegetables and other fresh produce items to offer what Hawkins terms “recipe inspiration for home cooking.” Sliced almonds “work well merchandised specifically with salad ingredients like lettuce and greens as they are a good complement and can be promoted as a salad topper.” Providing consumers with an easy way to incorporate new flavors and textures into meals, she adds, can help create some excitement around the purchase.

According to Mariani’s Bollack, COVID has had a “huge” effect on the produce department’s bulk nut section. “In 2019, bulk nuts were one of the highest-profit items. Now, most retailers have converted to self-packing bulk items or focusing on packaged items in clear bags.”

Hawkins and her colleagues are finding that in the wake of the pandemic, “very few” retailers are offering bulk in produce. For those that continue to do so, more are reducing the size of their sets and migrating to gravity-fed bins rather than scoop bins. “However, the consumer demand for bulk remains, so retailers are trying to satisfy the demand by offering items such as almonds in larger ‘bulk-like’ packaging such as laydown bags and larger tubs.”There is still a handful of stores that sell in bulk, she adds, “but the general direction has been to pre-package bulk items for the consumer to grab from produce.”