Originally printed in the February 2020 issue of Produce Business.

Harvests and holidays come together as the weather breaks.

Every year the turn of the calendar to Spring signals the arrival of asparagus in the produce department of the B&R Stores’ flagship market in Lincoln, NE.

The celebration of the first asparagus is sometimes accompanied by cross-merchandising efforts that go well beyond produce.

“Well cross promote with Hollandaise sauce, and sometimes have a display near the meat department,” says Randy Bohaty, produce manager at the Lincoln store. “Asparagus is a big spring vegetable.”

B&R is a 55-year-old chain of 20 stores, with significant employee ownership, stretching across Nebraska and Iowa.

Although these markets let you know local asparagus is just one of the many ways it demonstrates “Hometown Proud,” when it comes to lining up early strawberries to help the locals put months of frost behind them, the company is willing to go to the far corners of North America.

“We’ll get them out of Mexico, then Florida and eventually California,” says Bohaty. “We’ll promote them when the market makes them available in the quantity and price point it takes. We’ll usually merchandize with other berry varieties, like blackberries and raspberries.”

A Time For Celebrations

Spring signals the arrival of the first of many fresh fruits and vegetables that become available as the days lengthen and the weather warms.

This is also the time of many celebrations, both religious and secular, of the spirit of renewal. The produce department can serve in the Spring as the home of foods associated with this spirit of culinary celebration.

“Horseradish is for the feast of the Passover,” says Elaine Bruns, co-owner of St. Louis-based L. Cherrick Horseradish Co., St. Louis. “It’s part of the meal. I would say sales go up 90% in the produce markets. Most of the sales will be for the Passover festival, which will be from April 8 to April 16 in 2020.”

Bruns and her husband bought L. Cherrick in 1979, when the company was already 55-years-old.

In many areas of the country horseradish — the root vegetable — as distinguished from its derivative condiment in a jar, has a special place in spring produce displays.

“A lot of the stores display horseradish as the roots themselves,” says Dennis Diekemper, general manager of J. R. Kelly Company, Collinsville, IL. “We have gone to washing it so the soil is not a factor. You can shrink wrap it or individually tag the roots. You can display it with the other roots like rutabaga or turnips.”

J. R. Kelley markets more than 10 million pounds of horseradish roots grown in heartland soil every year and ships throughout the country and beyond.

“It’s a condiment that’s eaten with everything,” says Diekemper. “The number one use is as a cocktail sauce, but you can eat it with eggs, salads, hamburgers and hot dogs. Anything you want to spice up.”

There is a long list of produce items associated with culinary events that are part of spring celebrations.

“Spring holidays such as Easter, Passover and Mother’s Day are all spent celebrating with a meal,” says John Shuman, president of Shuman Farms, Reidsville, GA. “Recipe brochures, in-store demos and digital content inspiring shoppers will help drive incremental sales and market basket ring.”

Shuman Farms, until recently known as Shuman Produce, ships sweet onions year-round, but its flagship product is from the neighborhood of the home ranch Buck Shuman started in the mid-1980s in the Vidalia region, which harvests from mid-April to late August.

“After a long winter season, consumers are excited for their favorite sweet onions to hit shelves again,” says Shuman. “And as more fruits and vegetables become available again, the entire produce department comes to life with fresh produce. Spring fruits and vegetables, especially RealSweet Vidalia onions, are an important part to any produce department in the spring and summer months.”

Keep Momentum Going

While holidays like Easter, Passover or Mother’s Day are naturals for produce displays, they can be just the beginning of a produce merchandising season.

“The key is to not only promote during the actual holidays, but also keep the momentum with ads following the holidays,” says Brian Vertrees, director of business development-west for Naturipe, Salinas, CA. “Big displays and berries are a top item for consumers.”

Naturipe is a partnership among four berry grower-shippers that offer year-round supplies from home bases in Chile, Michigan, Salinas and California’s Central Valley.

Some fruits and vegetables that are available all year reach their peak in the Spring.

“The key is to not only promote during the actual holidays, but also keep the momentum with ads following the holidays.”

— Brian Vertrees, Naturipe

“Artichoke sales exhibit a sharp increase in volume and dollars spent during the traditional peak spring season from March to May and during holidays such as Valentine’s Day, Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas,” says Diana McClean, senior director of marketing at Ocean Mist Farms, Castroville, CA. “Ocean Mist Farms, however, has a unique value proposition for trade partners and consumers, as we are the only grower to produce artichokes 365 days a year.”

Ocean Mist grows in Oxnard, Coachella and Baja, CA, but its largest operation is in Castroville, which, as a sign stretching across Merritt Street proudly announces, is The Artichoke Center of the World.

“The spring season does offer opportunities above and beyond the holidays themselves,” says McClean. “Frequent seasonal consumer-facing promotions are one key marketing activation that Ocean Mist Farms has implemented to educate consumers about our brand and inspire consumers to seek out and repeatedly purchase our artichokes in-store.”

If the goal is to turn a taste of Spring into a year-round habit for consumers, flavor is the key.

“We are focusing on flavor and quality, as our raspberry, blackberry and blueberry programs all have increased plantings with our proprietary varieties,” says Vertrees. “These provide an awesome eating experience for consumers. We will be working closely with our retail partners to build additional promotion plans surrounding the eating experience of our berries.”

Variety breeding to enhance quality and flavor has to be backed up by proper care at the distribution and store level.

“Fresh artichokes stack well on their sides stem-to-stem to create merchandise displays of any size, and they cross merchandise perfectly with a variety of complementary items. Also, they look and taste fresh for nearly two weeks when kept cool and moist, in refrigeration at 34 degrees Fahrenheit,” says McClean. “Please visit our website to learn more about artichoke merchandising best practices and proper handling techniques.”

Merchandise And They Will Sell

Some of these fruits and vegetables are so popular in the Spring they almost sell themselves. Almost, but not quite.

Proper care and handling, and effective eye-catching displays, also go a long way toward optimizing spring produce sales.

“With all of the varieties coming back in season, it’s important for retailers to merchandise effectively in order to capture incremental sales,” says Shuman. “Specifically, we recommend retailers capitalize on the excitement of the season and build large displays with signage telling the story of the item’s uniqueness. Cross merchandising with other, complementary items like peppers, mushrooms and salads, is also a great way to ensure increased basket sizes.”

Signage is old school, but the modern-day use of video and social media is also part of an effective announcement that spring is ‘on’ at produce.
“In store, signage is a great way to tell the story about the seasonality of an item or the grower behind the brand,” says Shuman. “When promoting Spring produce online, video and social media content that promotes ‘What’s in Season’ and tells the farm-to-fork story can get consumers to add Spring produce to their shopping lists before they even go into the store.”
The display can include companion produce items or tips on how to use the featured variety.