Originally printed in the September 2023 issue of Produce Business.
The turn of the millennium two decades ago ushered in a new era for fresh herbs at retail. That is, one where organics represented a large share of the category.
Herb sections became predominantly organic in the 2002-2008 timeframe for two major reasons, explains Chick Goodman, national sales contractor who works with the Coosemans Retail Group, part of Coosemans Worldwide headquartered in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands.
“First, fresh herb sets represented only about 1% of produce sales, so the category wasn’t big enough to support dedicating shelf space to both conventional and organic. Retailers figured the organic customer might go elsewhere if organic wasn’t available and the conventional buyer would buy organic if it wasn’t prohibitively more expensive, so they decided to just carry organic,” says Goodman.
Second, he adds, it was at this time that organic herb production moved from a cottage industry to major production with greater efficiencies. “This meant there was usually less than a 10% upcharge between conventional and organic.”
Third, back then, retailers wanted to expand the number of organic items they carried, and they posted signs at the entrance to the produce department announcing the number of organic items available. “They could add 12 to 16 organic items in 4 linear feet of shelf space with herbs. An equivalent amount of space would only get them an item or two with more common commodities with larger footprints.”
Today, the top 10 organic culinary herbs by sales, compared to their conventionally grown counterparts, represent 60.7% of dollars, according to Nielsen Total U.S. data for the 52 weeks ending April 29, 2023, as provided by New York, NY-headquartered Nielsen.
These herbs, and the percent of dollar sales they represent of the top 10 herbs, are: basil (29.2%), thyme (14.2%), rosemary (14.1%), dill (11.2%), mint (11.1%), chives (8.0%), mixed herbs (5.0%), sage (3.5%), oregano (2.7%), and tarragon (1.0%).
“Most of the fresh herbs we sell are organic. Customer demand is strong,” says Paul Kneeland, senior vice president of sales and merchandising for Gelson’s, a 27-store chain headquartered in Encino, CA.
Similarly, at Tops Friendly Markets, a 149-store chain based in Williamsville, NY, 94% to 98% of the fresh herbs carried are organic, including 100% of the clamshell herbs. “Fresh herb buyers typically like to cook at home. They are the customer you definitely want to have in-store,” says Jeff Cady, director of produce and floral.
Here are seven ways to spice up sales of organic fresh herbs.
1. CALL OUT FRESHNESS & FLAVOR
Fresh organic herbs are a potent remedy to flavor fatigue at home, says Jim Kras, chief executive officer of Edible Garden, headquartered in Belvidere, NJ. “Before the pandemic, it was TV cooking shows that spurred interest and showed consumers how to cook with fresh herbs. Then, with the pandemic, people were cooking more at home and using fresh herbs to get that restaurant-quality experience.”
Health consciousness is a boost for fresh herbs, too, adds Coosemans’ Goodman. “For $2.49 to $2.99, consumers can add flavor to an entire meal without extra salt, sugar and fat.”
Despite inflationary price increases in the category overall, says Steven Wright, chief customer officer for Soli Organic, in Rockingham, VA, “consumer preference for the freshness and flavor they get from fresh herbs has not dampened demand. Total herb sales are trending positively in 2023, with both strong dollar and unit sales growth over the last year.”
2. CAPITALIZE ON SUPPLY
The trend today is a greater availability of reasonably priced organic herbs compared to five years ago, says Camilo Penalosa, managing director-partner of Infinite Herbs, headquartered in Miami, FL. “Fresh organic herbs are available year-round sourced from the U.S. and abroad like Mexico and Colombia.”
More specifically, organic herb supply and demand can vary from herb to herb.
“For example, spearmint has an incredible, weed-like growth rate, so supply can be almost unlimited,” says Katie Bishop, marketing coordinator for Jacobs Farm del Cabo, headquartered in Pescadero, CA. “A different example is tarragon. There is modest demand for this French herb, but it’s been a difficult growing season and supply is lagging. Some herbs that are perfectly in line with demand now are chives, cilantro, marjoram, mint and oregano.”
“We are always farming with the hopes of extending seasons and reducing product gaps. However, seasonality does still impact supply,” Bishop adds. “Use this to advantage and promote herbs in a way that aligns with seasonality. As things heat up in late May, basil becomes more available and is ideal for making a caprese salad. As November becomes chilly, thyme grows plentifully and is perfect for soups and stews.”
3. STOCK BEST SELLERS AND UP-AND-COMERS
Commodity herbs, or those traditionally sold in whole bunches rather than smaller packages such as culinary herbs, are big sellers.
“Parsley, especially the flat leaf, is doing well,” says Tops Friendly Markets’ Cady.
The best-selling organic herb at Gelson’s is cilantro. “Some of our recipe suggestions on our rewards members’ email blasts have promoted organic cilantro and it seems to be working. Sales continue to grow,” says Kneeland.
Soli Organics introduced bunches of parsley and cilantro to meet evolving consumer needs coming out of the pandemic.
“Bunches are a large segment of the category, but are subject to short shelf life and multiple handling and touch points before reaching the end consumer. Organic is also less represented in this segment. We launched our packaged bunches to address these issues,” says Wright.
As for culinary herb sales at retail, “basil represents the lion’s share for us,” says Tops Friendly Markets’ Cady.
Retailers have found that adding a living potted basil display and stocking more than one size of fresh-cut basil drives strong incremental sales and shopper satisfaction, adds Soli Organics Wright. “We launched our new 2-ounce size basil this year in response to increasing consumer demand for larger sizes.”
In general, portion sizes for clamshell organic herbs have ranged from 1 ounce in the early 2000s to the sweet spot of one-half to two-third ounces today, says Coosemans’ Goodman. “The idea is to have enough for one meal, but not so much it goes bad in the back of the consumer’s refrigerator, and they go back to dried.”
The newest addition to its organic lineup for North Shore Greenhouses Inc., in Thermal, CA, is Thai Basil and a Basil Trio, the latter of which contains basil, opal basil and large leaf basil.
“Thai Basil is within the flavor profile of basil, but has an added licorice flavor and is used especially in Asian cuisine,” says Suzette Overgaag, vice president.
Consumer demand for organic mint is rapidly growing, adds Eric Cloutier, in organic purchasing and sales at Fruits et Légumes Gaétan Bono, in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. “Consumers are more inspired and creative within its versatility.”
Organic chives are seeing growth at Gelson’s, says Kneeland; tarragon is increasing in popularity for making bearnaise, according to Coosemans’ Goodman; and dill is on a strong growth trend, adds Soli Organics’ Wright.
“Seasonal blends are doing well,” adds Tops Friendly Markets’ Cady. “Especially like poultry blend, rosemary, sage, and thyme, and we’ll tie it in with a protein.”
4. OFFER POTTED & PACKAGED HERBS — SUSTAINABLY
Potted herbs are a customer-pleaser at Tops.
“We have a local supplier that sells them in biodegradable containers. They aren’t organic, but they are local. The utopia would be local and organic. Since they have soil, we sell them in the floral department,” says Cady.
Last year, Edible Garden introduced its hydro basil, which is hydroponically grown and sold with roots intact, in a recyclable and biodegradable pot with a recyclable cardboard carrier tray in a major Northeast retailer with 350 locations.
In cut clamshell herbs, Soli Organics’ new 2-ounce size basil is packed in 100% post-consumer recycled material trays.
For its organic fresh herbs, Coosemans has converted to bags that use 75% less plastic than clamshells. Herb-specific micro-perforations in the bags help extend shelf life.
5. BUILD DESTINATION DISPLAYS
A best practice is to create an herb destination by carrying, at minimum, the top 10 selling herbs in the category, as well as multiple SKUs of basil, advises Soli Organics Wright.
“Fresh herbs offer great value every day and tend to be relatively price inelastic. For that reason, temporary price promotion has limited effectiveness,” he explains. “Our experience suggests that a strong herb destination offer, as well as full and fresh displays, make the biggest difference. Plus, herbs are often purchased from a recipe list. So, it is critical to maintain the base herb set at consistent inventory levels to eliminate out-of-stocks, which disappoint and inconvenience shoppers.”
One exception to this single-location recommendation is living organic potted herbs, Wright adds. “Living herbs are the most ideal segment of the category for floor display. They draw shoppers in with high impulse appeal, driving strong turn velocity. Year-round wire or wooden racks have been quite effective displays and shippers to augment inventory during peak periods have been quite successful with our customers.”
Edible Garden offers retailers patented in-store self-watering displays for its potted herbs. Wire hooks on either side also hold bagged organic herbs. The company recently updated this unit with new battery technology, and created a one-sided version, in addition to the traditional two-sided configurations, which give retailers the flexibility to display these against a wall or in an aisle.
6. SUGGEST RECIPE-CENTRIC TIE-INS
The best way to promote organic herbs, says Infinite Herbs’ Penalosa, “is with recipes. Basil displayed next to mozzarella cheese. Herbs like rosemary and thyme next to meats. They have to be simple recipes, so the customer feels comfortable, and it creates an impulse purchase.”
During major holidays at Gelson’s, “we always cross-merchandise organic herbs in the meat department,” says Kneeland. “We cross-merchandise in other areas in the store, too, but the meat department is the best place.”
Jacobs Farm del Cabo’s Bishop says the company is a huge believer in integrating organic herbs with other organic produce through cross-merchandising. “It gets the wheels in the consumer’s mind turning. When you see chives next to a myriad of other herbs, it looks like another product on the shelf. When you see it next to potatoes, you think of toppings on baked potatoes. The same goes for cilantro and tomatoes, sage and butternut squash, dill and cabbage.”
“This type of produce merchandising is sure to drive sales of both your organic herbs and within your other core organic categories.”
7. SPARK SEASONAL SALES BUMPS
Mint for mint juleps and cilantro for salsa-making were two organic herbs spotlighted at Tops Friendly Markets in early May for the Kentucky Derby and Cinco de Mayo.
While it’s important to showcase fresh organic herbs year-round, holidays can be a great way to get consumers to buy, buy more or try something new, says Infinite Herbs’ Penalosa. “Holidays like Thanksgiving, New Year and Easter are a time when people are more open to spending money and trying new meals to host family and guests.”
Best of all, there’s no need to price promote, says Coosemans’ Goodman. “Consumers are going to buy herbs during the holidays, anyway, why give up margin?”