The Spring Selling Season

Spring Selling - Vidalia Onions

Effective marketing and merchandising methods to boost revenues.

Spring is a prime season for selling produce and a good time to rethink and update fruit and vegetable displays and offerings. Timing, placement and promotions are key factors in highlighting spring produce, keeping it top of mind for customers and raising register rings.

Lincoln, NE-based B&R Stores, an 18-store chain with four retail concepts located throughout Nebraska and Iowa, stays on top of spring items by moving berries up front, expanding displays and placing asparagus in high-traffic areas highlighted with eye-catching signage.

“One of the things we do in late spring or early summer, typically around May, is department resets,” says Randy Bohaty, B&R’s produce director. “As the season progresses and more items come into play, we adjust the department to place any new seasonal items up front. This helps introduce these foods to customers, before we work them back onto the shelf.”

strawberry display

Timelines And Challenges

Though spring is a key season for a variety of fruits and vegetables, availability due to weather concerns is perhaps the biggest challenge early on. Crops could mature sooner or later and be smaller or larger than anticipated, depending on Mother Nature. “Ongoing planning and communication between the retailer and supplier can help minimize the overall impact on spring produce sales,” says Christine Christian, senior vice president of the Watsonville, CA-based California Strawberry Commission. Strawberries are historically the first fruit of spring and heavily promoted for Valentine’s Day, Easter and Mother’s Day. Other spring holidays and opportunities include Passover, National Nutrition Month in March, Fresh Celery Month in April, and National Asparagus and Strawberry months in May.

Another marketing opportunity is spring youth sports, which typically start in March. Having convenient grab-and-go items in the produce department for team practices and games can create a destination for young athletes and their families. As for timing with these products, it is much more variable than in the past. For example, with berries now routinely sourced offshore, the seasons are more intermingled for these fruits. Well Pict Berries in Watsonville, CA, starts preparing its spring crop the last weekend of December, but because January is traditionally rainy in California, availability is a wavering factor.

“We generally start walking the fields in late December,” says Jim Grabowski, Well Pict’s director of marketing. “We always hope for a good year, but Mother Nature can throw a curve ball, and spring can be the most volatile time of the year weather-wise.” Also, weather concerns across the country can impact availability. For example, last year’s late spring snows in the Midwest and Northeast made for difficult traveling conditions.

“A mix of feature ads and in-store price reductions is another effective method for driving incremental volume.”

— Christine Christian, California Strawberry Commission

As for timelines with these products, the California Strawberry Commission encourages retailers to develop merchandising plans with suppliers that begin pre-Easter week and are maintained through the start of the Memorial Day holiday. “Generally speaking, retailers waited for spring to promote California strawberries,” says Chuck Sweeney, director of category development at Driscoll’s Strawberry Associates, based in Watsonville, CA.

The company encourages retailers to broaden strawberry displays at the end of March through early April as well as putting the fruit on ad during this period. These displays can be augmented with raspberries, as well. “Retailers are about growing sales, and produce departments will look to what was promoted last year and cycle in those items,” says Sweeney. “Also, it’s important to consider that the organic side brings in a different demographic.”

harmons city creekOne issue with the unpredictability of spring crops is managing pre-paid ads. “Since print ads are developed weeks or months earlier, one way to manage inconsistent availability is to place ads only during peak seasons and then support this with social media, POS and website marketing during the shoulders of the season, which can more easily expand and contract as needed,” says Elizabeth Pivonka, president and chief executive of Produce for Better Health Foundation, based in Hockessin, DE.

It can also be challenging for retailers to educate customers on the best items available during spring. For this reason, “it is important for produce teams to be educated about what’s in season so they can show their customers,” says Trish James, vice president for Produce for Kids in Orlando, FL, and former produce category manager for ACME Markets. “Sampling and recipes will help increase sales of these items.”

Retailers should start marketing spring produce immediately after Valentine’s Day, paying attention to hot buys that may be the start of the crop to introduce customers to the product, recommends James. Getting ahead of the items and anticipating the trends for the season should be the goal.

Unlike strawberries, the Vidalia sweet onion season lasts through the summer, so spring marketing of the product transitions easily into the following season. Peak season for Vidalia sweet onions is typically during the months of May and June. “The first day of Vidalia season is April 25 this year, and it can be a holiday in itself,” says John Shuman, president and director of sales for Shuman Produce, headquartered in Reidsville, GA.  Vidalia onion marketing should include Cinco de Mayo as an opportunity for cross-promotions that include avocados, tomatoes and cheese. Also, Memorial Day grilling displays can include building meal solutions with sweet onions, beef, chicken and additional produce items to increase rings at the register.

“Memorial Day is a key holiday for Vidalia onions — especially, since these products are versatile on the grill or in salads,” says Susan A. Waters, executive director of the Vidalia Onion Committee in Vidalia, GA.

The Vidalia Onion Committee recommends retailers include information on the merchandising display to let consumers know that these items are fresh from the farm and the Vidalia season is in full swing.

Marketing And Promotions

Targeted marketing and promotions are effective in not only making consumers aware of the produce items available in spring, but also encouraging a variety of uses as well as trial of new items.

Dorothy Lane Market, which has three upscale supermarkets in Ohio, promotes local spring produce, which include leafy lettuce, then greens, a little bit of berries and tomatoes. “Growers get some of these items started in hot houses,” says Michelle Mayhill, the market’s produce director. “We really support our local growers from spring to the end of fall — even part of winter with turnips.”Morton Williams Lemons and Kiwi

Retailers also can maximize spring produce sales by carrying an assortment of packaging sizes for both conventional and organic produce to meet growing consumer demand.

In terms of strawberries, the 1-pound clamshell represents nearly 68 percent of the category volume, but growth in recent years has been driven by 2-pound packages, which show growing sales of 7.9 percent and comprise nearly 24 percent of category volume, according to the California Strawberry Commission. In addition, 1-pound organic packages account for 4.5 percent of volume and increasing sales of 5 percent.

“A mix of feature ads and in-store price reductions is another effective method for driving incremental volume,” says Christian of the California Strawberry Commission. Although seasonal items will be front and center in the produce department, suppliers say retailers should go a step further and highlight specialty items that may be in the market for a short period of time during the spring, like Pixie Tangerines and Meyer Lemons.

“Touting these are in season and at peak is a great way to market these items,” says James. For the Produce for Kids’ consumer audience, the organization recently started a monthly “What’s in Season” shareable graphic and blog post. “There are creative things retailers can do in the produce department similar to this initiative,” says James. “This includes pricing accordingly and offering a sampling of items. Front-table merchandising, sampling and educating the customer about these items will lead to incremental sales.”

Utilizing marketing displays provided by produce suppliers, along with highlighting products in weekly circulars or magazines, making recipe cards available, and using social media, can drive the message home. The Ocean Mist Farms Artichoke Club has more than 60,000 members nationwide who are provided with recipe ideas, how-to-videos and regionalized notifications about where to find artichokes on sale.

Spring is the peak season for fresh artichokes grown in Castroville, CA, the artichoke capital of the U.S., located along the coastal region of the Monterey Bay Peninsula. The family farmers of Ocean Mist Farms have been growing artichokes for more than 90 years.

“The crop generally starts peaking on the jumbo to large sizes in March, while May is the peak for the foodie favorite size: the baby artichoke,” says Diana McClean, director of marketing for Ocean Mist Farms. “Traditionally, the larger sizes peak at the front end in March and April, with the smaller sizes peaking in April and May.”

To successfully market sweet onions — Vidalias in particular during the spring months — Shuman encourages retailers to call attention to the start of the season during the last week of April with signage and colorful, abundant displays. “We suggest utilizing the power of sweet onions in cross-merchandising to drive the sales of additional items inside the produce department as well as common companions in the meat department, like fresh beef and chicken,” says Shuman.

artichokeInnovative Display Ideas
The secret to attracting added attention with spring produce is creating unique, eye-catching displays. With the bounty of products and array of colors, spring may be the easiest season to accomplish this. Dorothy Lane Market strives to push creative ideas forward with its spring displays. “If you stay the same, you become stale, so we don’t set displays the same way every year,” says Mayhill. “We focus on quality and the uniqueness of items, rather than price.”

The California Strawberry Commission found creating berry destination displays located at the front of the produce department increases strawberry category sales and total produce sales. These displays should contain all package sizes, segments and complementary items.

“If you stay the same, you become stale, so we don’t set displays the same way every year. We focus on quality and the uniqueness of items, rather than price.”

— Michelle Mayhill, Dorothy Lane Market

“Items, such as dessert shells, crepes, whipped cream and dips, should be cross-merchandised on primary displays to encourage impulse purchases,” says Christian. “Maintaining secondary displays in bakery and dairy departments with yogurt and salad bars also helps drive sales.”

Due to availability, spring berry programs (or patches) tend to expand and contract like accordions during the season. For example, raspberries come in April and get stronger in May — generally dominate the larger displays. “As for allocation, half of the berry patch is typically strawberries, 10 to 15 percent are blueberries, 10 percent are raspberries, and the rest are blackberries,” says Sweeney of Driscoll’s.

He recommends retailers set up full berry patches, rather than just including one or two berry types. These items should be consolidated into one location, highlighted with attractive signage, and cross-merchandised with complementary products. Creating solutions or recipes with a variety of items also is an effective way to cross-merchandise. “Retailers should start with an easy, simple recipe including ingredients focused on fresh, seasonal produce,” says James of Produce for Kids. “Then the recipe should be built with items from the rest of the store and a display — making it easy for customers to grab-and-go.”  Colorful, impactful displays should include color breaks; be stocked, culled and clean; and demo a full meal or snack. “Displays with a relevant message are effective,” says Scott Seddon, brand manager at Pero Family Farms, based in Delray Beach, FL. “Celebrity promotions also work well.”

Endcaps help grab attention when customers walk in. These need to be large and include complementary items. The Vidalia Onion Committee offers high graphic bins for retailers to create both a featured and/or secondary display. The Committee also recommends retailers cross-merchandise these onions with related items, such as tomatoes and avocados. “Research shows 67 percent of shoppers purchased Vidalia onions individually in bulk displays, but 48 percent purchased Vidalia onions in 5-pound bags or less,” says Waters. “Therefore, we recommend including both bulk and bagged onions in the merchandising display to appeal to a range of consumer preferences.”Whole Foods Onion Display

Since spring and summertime are the peak season for Vidalia onions, it also is recommended that retailers create a seasonal destination display in the produce department and cross-merchandise Vidalias with charcoal and other grilling accessories, hamburger rolls and picnic items, especially as the weather gets warmer in the spring and around the Memorial Day holiday. “We suggest placing sweet onions in the center of the produce department for maximum effect,” says Shuman. “Secondary displays can provide an advantage during holiday promotions and peak season to accommodate incremental sales increases during those periods.”

Research the company recently conducted with Chicago-based Nielsen Perishables Group revealed a variety of impactful cross-merchandising opportunities for sweet onions and related products within the produce department. Sweet onions drive sales of these products and dramatically increase the likelihood of purchase amongst consumers who already have sweet onions in their baskets.

“We discovered that consumers with sweet onions in their carts are more likely to purchase other produce, such as peppers, tomatoes, mushrooms and bagged salad as well as fresh meats, such as beef and chicken,” says Shuman. “Retailers should consider displays outside of the produce department to maximize sales during the spring months when grilling season begins,” says Shuman. “Vidalia sweet onions make the perfect pairing for burgers, sausage and chicken on the grill, and research shows merchandising them together increases sales of both products.”