Originally printed in the February 2018 issue of Produce Business.
From March Madness to holidays, consumers look to all things fresh — especially produce.
Spring is one of the strongest seasons of the year for fresh produce sales at retail. Case in point, produce as a percent of total fresh food sales averaged 35 percent in Q2 of 2017 compared with 34 percent in Q1 and Q3 in 2017 and 33 percent overall in 2016, according to data supplied by the United Fresh Produce Association, headquartered in Washington, DC.
The warm change in weather in many parts of the United States as well as domestic supply after months of imports creates this register-ringing excitement. What’s more, spring holidays have especially potent selling themes in which to promote fresh produce such as asparagus, artichokes, berries, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, horseradish, mangos, sweet corn, table grapes and Vidalia onions. Here are tried-and-true trendy times for promotion:
March 11-April 2
Think of the same tactics used for Super Bowl when it comes to March Madness. That is, focus on fresh produce perfect for snacking and parties. March Madness marks the time when the NCAA Men’s and Women’s Basketball Tournaments take place. Selection Sunday, when the men’s bracket is chosen, is on March 11.
On the vegetable side, “promote steamed artichoke hearts for dips and side dishes,” suggests Robert Schueller, director of public relations for Los Angeles-headquartered Melissa’s/World Variety Produce.
The company sells its ready-to-eat steamed, vacuum-sealed artichokes in 6.34-ounce packages.
Regarding fruit, grapes make excellent snacks. South America, predominantly Chile and to a lesser extent Peru, supply grapes to the United States in March and April.
“Movable holidays, be it day of the week or week of the year, impact consumer buying at a time where there may be great volatility in the supply of other fruits,” explains John Pandol, director of special projects at Pandol Bros., Delano, CA. “Lazy category planners working off last year’s information will miss opportunities. For example, the second weekend in March this year is the start of March Madness, so promoting grape’s high water content and natural source of electrolytes is an excellent ad theme.”
ST. PATRICK’S DAY
Cabbage is the iconic vegetable to promote for this commemoration of Irish culture, where the chief celebratory dish is corned beef and cabbage.
Big bins of fresh heads of green cabbage greet customers as they enter the six Robert Fresh Markets in New Orleans. “St. Patrick’s Day is a big deal here and cabbage too for two reasons. First, for preparing corned beef and cabbage. Secondly is for the parades, when people throw cabbage, potatoes and carrots. That’s why we feature such large prominent displays of cabbage from early to mid-March,” explains Terry Esteve, produce director.
Green cabbage, as well as purple and Napa cabbage, are available in the spring from Growers Express, Salinas, CA. “Cross merchandise cabbage near the corned beef for St. Patrick’s Day. Or, promote cabbage and other cooking vegetables for other lesser-known religious feast days like St. Joseph’s Day (March 19), which historically was a big food holiday. Other ideas are to encourage in-store demos offering unique usage ideas for cabbage, conduct a recipe development contest with consumers or have a produce manager’s contest for best seasonal cabbage displays,” suggests Jamie Strachan, chief executive for Growers Express, which exclusively markets lettuces and mixed vegetables under the Green Giant Fresh brand.
Take the St. Patrick’s Day theme one step further by spotlighting other green-colored vegetables, such as Brussels sprouts and asparagus in ads and displays.
Supplies of Brussels sprouts out of California should be plentiful from February to May. “We offer all SKUs continuously through the spring season,” says Strachan. To maximize sales, Strachan suggests including Brussels sprouts as part of broader cooking vegetable promotions.
March 30-April 7
All holidays see a swing up in demand for fresh horseradish, yet the biggest is Passover, according to Dennis Diekemper, operations manager of the J.R. Kelly Company, in Collinsville, IL. “This is the time when there’s an ability to buy the fresh root. Gaining in popularity are our fresh, shrink-wrapped, individual horseradish roots. These have the benefit of being pre-washed plus have information about how to use the root. Many people think of horseradish and beef but don’t know that you can use fresh shredded horseradish over salads or with scrambled eggs. Horseradish also contains the same cancer-fighting agents as in broccoli.”
Demand for horseradish grows leading up to Passover, which starts at sundown on March 30, according to Melissa’s Schueller. “It’s a standard ingredient in the Seder meal.”
Last fall, the company introduced ready-to-use shredded horseradish, which is packaged fresh in a 2.12-ounce glass jar to maintain its pungency.
Asparagus, Brussels sprouts, strawberries and mangos are excellent items to promote for the spring religious holiday.
California-grown asparagus takes a prominent position starting in early March and peaking in April for Easter, when harvest starts in the Pacific Northwest at New Seasons Market, a 20-store chain headquartered in Portland, OR. “We will have had three to four aggressive price promotions by and right before Easter,” says Jeff Fairchild, produce buyer. “At the same time, there will be point-of-sale, such as 8.5 x 11-inch posters hanging over the displays that call out the farmers, circular callouts and secondary displays front of store.”
California, Mexico and Peru all supply asparagus to the U.S. market in the spring, creating an ideal time for advertisements.
“This will be the first year we will harvest organic asparagus,” says Bram Hulshoff, chief executive at green asparagus grower, Desert Farms, El Centro, CA. “Our asparagus is offered in Small, Standard, Large, XL and Jumbo sizes.”
White asparagus is trending as a specialty produce item, according Melissa’s Schueller, which also offers purple asparagus. “We have seen about a 20 percent sales increase over last year in white asparagus.”
Large bags (1.75 pounds, 2 pounds and 2.5 pounds) of the popular green asparagus sell especially well for Easter and other spring holidays, says Charlie Eagle, vice president of business development at Southern Specialties, Pompano Beach, FL. “These sizes traditionally were in club stores. Now, they are carried by conventional retailers.”
Build prominent eye-catching and shrink-preventing displays with asparagus standing up straight with cut ends in a water reservoir and ice added to lower temperature, suggests Desert Farms’ Hulshoff. “This boosts sales by presenting the consumer with an appealing product and improves the shelf life of the product.”
Cross-merchandise asparagus in secondary displays for Easter, recommends Eagle. “This can be in the meat department next to lamb or ham or in the deli with a photo of prosciutto-wrapped asparagus stalks as a serving idea.”
Easter is generally the strongest spring holiday for Brussels sprouts, according to Growers Express’ Strachan. Typically, like most ‘food’ holidays, we will see a demand spike in the value-added sprout packs in advance of Easter.”
In New Orleans, Easter signals the end of the local strawberry season. It’s a huge time for sales, with each store selling thousands of cases, says Robert Fresh Market’s Esteve. “Strawberry shortcake is an Easter tradition here. Seventy-five percent of sales are 1-pound clamshells, and the rest are half and whole flats that we sell at a discounted rate.”
Ample supplies of California strawberries beginning in mid-March make Easter, Mother’s Day and Memorial Day key-selling spring holidays.
Best practices include promoting the week before, the week of and the week after a holiday week to maximize movement and revenue, recommends Christine Christian, senior vice president of the Watsonville, CA-headquartered California Strawberry Commission (CSC), which offers consumer recipe brochures for in-store promotion, plus consumer recipes and recipe photography on its website to support retailer’s consumer promotion programs. “Expand displays to include multiple package sizes, organic options and cross merchandise with complementary products to drive incremental sales. Add additional displays in the bakery and dairy sections and near the checkout aisles to capture more impulse shoppers.”
A key finding from a fall 2017 consumer survey conducted by Rose Research Center on behalf of the CSC reveals the Top 5 fresh strawberry purchase factors are: fresh appearance, availability of organic, high in Vitamin C, price and display appearance. Notably, price is less important than in 2013 research, and the current data underscores the importance of merchandising organic berries plus the rising significance of nutritional content in shaping shopper choices.
Spring is when mango imports to the U.S. market transition from South America to Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean. More specifically, March 15 to April 15 is the peak season for the small, yellow-skinned Champagne mangos from Mexico, distributed by Ciruli Bros., headquartered in Nogales, AZ. “At the same time, we’ll also be bringing in Tommy Atkins and Haden varieties from Mexico, making this a great time to promote,” explains Chris Ciruli, chief operations officer. “For example, years ago Andronico’s in San Francisco ran an Easter promotion that paired Perrier-Jouët champagne with our Champagne mangos in a fruit salad.”
CINCO DE MAYO
Beyond Easter, Cinco de Mayo is always a great opportunity to promote mangos while tying it to the Mexican holiday, suggests Angela Serna, communications manager for the Orlando, FL-based National Mango Board (NMB), which works with retailers on customized initiatives.
Ripe fruit, prominently displayed, plus offering fresh-cut, is the best way to sell more, says Ciruli. “Ripening programs use to be a niche. Now we’re seeing double-digit growth in demand for ripe fruit from large-volume chains as well as small regional stores. Additionally, retailers who display mangos in small baskets have the lowest growth rates for this fruit compared to those who display half to full pallet displays. Finally, fresh-cut mangos are growing faster than whole. This presents an opportunity for a lot of chains.”
Education is also key, says the NMB’s Serna. “Consumers’ main barriers to purchase mangos are how to select, cut and use the fruit. To assist, retailers can order free point-of-sale materials to display with their mangos. Themed mango displays are always a big hit. For example, choose a NMB original recipe from one of our tear pads and ask your employees to group the ingredients in store. While it sounds simple, this strategy leads to colorful displays that draw in shoppers by telling a story and offering a solution.
Cinco de Mayo ranked No. 1 in avocado selling holidays in the U.S. and No. 2 in volume, according to data from the Hass Avocado Board. It also had the highest dollar growth rate of any holiday, with a 33.9 percent increase over the previous year.
Artichokes and berries are two favorites for this holiday that honors Moms.
Artichokes are extremely popular during the spring, especially for those locally in California, says Diana McClean, senior director of marketing at Castroville, CA-based Ocean Mist Farms, which offers a variety of artichoke pack sizes and styles including bulk, a 3-count clamshell, a club pack and value-added Season & Steam artichokes. “We often see a spike in sales, fueled by our spring marketing efforts, to encourage shoppers to use fresh artichokes for holidays like Mother’s Day,” says McClean.
Growth in sales of baby-sized and purple artichokes is up 10-15 percent, according to Melissa’s Schueller. “This year is looking like a La Nina season, with less rain, and this is better for the purple artichoke crop.”
Retailers can merchandise artichokes with popular recipe ingredients in the fresh produce section to encourage impulse buys during spring holidays, suggests Ocean Mist’s McClean. “An example is to place fresh garlic and lemon, along with angel hair pasta, next to a spring artichoke display as a recipe idea for Mother’s Day.”
This spring, Ocean Mist Farms again will host a spring grilling promotion for its fresh artichokes, following a wildly successful promotion in 2017 that actively engaged consumers with the brand to get grilling inspiration and recipes.
“We encourage retailers to cross-merchandise artichokes with grilling tools and other ingredients that correspond with the recipes that we will provide through the promotion,” says McClean.
As for berries, special weekend ads that run Friday, Saturday and Sunday are part of New Seasons Market’s two big spring pushes for berries, one at Easter and the other at Mother’s Day. “We offer all different pack sizes, taste sampling and secondary displays. After all, berries are a critical part of our total produce sales,” says Fairchild.
Ample supplies of California strawberries beginning in mid-March make Mother’s Day a key-selling holiday. Meanwhile, this year’s blueberry crop should be stronger than last year’s, which was affected by weather, according to Jim Roberts, vice president of sales for Naturipe Farms, based in Naples, FL.
“Blackberries will be available the entire spring from Mexico in pack sizes ranging from 6 to 18 ounces, and raspberries will be available in May in 6- and 12-ounce packs,” Roberts says. “With demand for organics on the rise, we have significantly increased acreage and will have promotable volumes for both blueberries and strawberries this spring.”
Sweet corn, grapes and Vidalia onions star in start-of-summer Memorial Day promotions.
Produce and bakery departments at Robert Fresh Market join forces for a sweet corn promotion for the holiday. “Bakery will make up containers of garlic butter, spicy butter and other flavored butters and put them into small containers. We sell these in ice bin merchandisers right next to big displays of corn at the front of our stores. It’s very popular,” says Esteve.
Meanwhile, sweet corn gets a dedicated front table end cap display at Acme Markets, starting around the third week of April through Labor Day, according to Jay Schneider, produce director at the 179-store chain headquartered in Malvern, PA, which is part of the 2,200-plus Albertsons family of banners. “Customers continue to be ‘time-starved’, hence we sell a 6-pack stripped tray pack of corn that we prepare at store level. Our display space is 60 percent tray pack versus 40 percent bulk. Customers love the convenience of not peeling and stripping the corn.”
Tray pack corn is a significant growth area, according to Brett Bergmann, president, general manager and owner at Branch: A Family of Farms, based in South Bay, FL. “There is a wide gap between the top-performing stores and the bottom stores, and many stores are still not carrying tray packs. Today’s consumers are looking for convenience and quality. Together, suppliers and retailers need to educate the underperforming stores to raise the bar on performance and have them benefit from this category trend.”
California table grapes start harvest in early May, with volumes starting in June.
“Even though Memorial Day is early this year, retailers will have more business because there’s a three-day weekend. However, retailers shouldn’t forget to double down the following week for the end-of-the-month business,” says Pandol.
Memorial Day is a time when most families kick off their picnic plans for the summer, says Jeff Cardinale, director of communications for the Fresno, CA-headquartered California Table Grape Commission (CTGC). “This makes California grapes the perfect picnic partner: grapes are portable, great right off the bunch and provide a burst of juicy taste and nutrition in every bite.”
Recent CTGC research shows more than 90 percent of consumers prefer California grapes over other origins when prices are the same, and 68 percent prefer California grapes when priced higher than imported grapes. As a result, the CTGC will offer point-of purchase materials such as danglers, price cards and shelf-talkers at the beginning of the season in May that highlight California grape’s origin.
The season for Vidalia onions starts in April, making Memorial Day the main spring holiday where supply and demand is excellent, says John Shuman, president and director of sales for Reidsville, GA-based Shuman Produce, Inc., which distributes its onions under the RealSweet brand. “We recommend our retail partners stock both bagged and bulk product to customize offerings to consumers. Our bagged products act as effective merchandising tools, with high-quality-graphic product imagery and great seasonal recipes. Displays drive sales, and that’s why we provide bags, bins and boxes that work to complement each other and feature the product with bright and colorful images to draw consumers’ eyes and attention.”
“Vidalia onions pair well with numerous items inside and outside of the produce department,” adds Shuman. “We suggest placing them in the center of the produce department for maximum effect. For example, a display including sweet onions, bagged salad, tomatoes and refrigerated dressings could be used to create a flavorful salad promotion for Memorial Day.”
The Vidalia Onion Committee, headquartered in Vidalia, GA, has introduced a new logo for its 2018 promotional season, with the theme ‘Only Vidalia.’ The logo corresponds to the quarter-century anniversary of the Vidalia trademark. According to Bob Stafford, the VOC’s interim executive director, the new campaign reflects the generations-old artisanal nature in which Vidalia onions are grown. The campaign features a 1-minute video, advertising aimed at consumers and retailers, social media and blogger content.