Successfully Merchandising Wet Rack Produce

Wet RacksPhoto Courtesy of Grimmway Farms

Originally printed in the January 2018 issue of Produce Business.

Proper misting techniques and times can ensure leafy greens and veggies glisten for optimum sales.

carrotsDespite being one of the most labor-intensive areas of the produce department, wet racks offer opportunities for increased sales. As shoppers can view and handle the vegetables in their natural and unpackaged state, the section delivers interesting merchandising and handling challenges. If merchandised correctly, the wet rack can become a destination for consumers to discover unique and lesser known items bundled with produce they’re already familiar with.

Items that must be sold under misting systems include unpackaged (naked) or open-packaged commodities, which include broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, celery, lettuce, leafy greens, kale, chard and spinach, leeks, parsnips, bok choy, beets, radishes, and herbs. Green beans are also a candidate, as misting can prevent drying and become rubbery, experts advise.

Through the misting systems, the produce looks so fresh that produce clerks can often fail to fully rotate the product. Produce marketers and retailers suggest a variety of tips to properly maintain wet rack areas and merchandise the vegetables that must be misted.

Some produce workers are naturally gifted at maintaining wet racks, says Gary Campisi, senior director of quality control in the Fresh Food Division for Walmart Inc. in Bentonville, AR. “You can go into some stores where they do such a nice job and really get creative with the color breaks,” he says. “They highlight certain varieties of lettuce, cabbage and others that mix well together and make you want to buy something. A wet rack that’s out of stock does not look visually appealing to anyone.”

Items Requiring Misting

Leafy vegetables and items such as watercress possess the shortest shelf lives if they’re not misted, says Emily Stavrou, marketing director for Corrigan Corp. of America, headquartered in Gurnee, IL. Items that should not be misted include mushrooms, onions (excluding green onions and chives), potatoes, tomatoes, shallots, garlic, dried peppers, jicama, certain tree beans, waxed rutabaga and white eggplant. Naked or bulk product with twist ties, open bags of vegetables, and enclosed products in bags or rigid containers are also often mistakenly placed under misting systems.

To get the “fresh” image misting allows, it’s important to remove broken leaves from the display, cut butt ends of leafy vegetables and clean any dirt from the display area, advises Stavrou. It is also important to discard dead or old produce and restock with produce that has been properly crisped and cleaned. Older produce goes on top if it is still saleable. Always rotate displays to keep them full and inviting.

Leafy greens, root vegetables, broccoli, cauliflower, green onions, parsley, cilantro and related items with the smallest shelf lives typically require the most misting and attention, says Ande Manos, marketing manager and business development for Babe Farms in Santa Maria, CA. Rotation, keeping product well-stocked and looking fresh is important. “Once saturated, root vegetable tops and lettuces start breaking down and begin to decay if over-misted,” she says.

Generally, the items under misters are more delicate and require close attention, including regular rotation and remaining in a continual cold-chain environment. Typically, misted items will experience higher shrink than non-wet rack items. In addition to water and moisture exposure, these items have less packaging that offers some level of protection, which also contributes to shrinking, says Jamie Strachan, chief executive of Green Giant Fresh, Salinas, CA.

“Retailers must not only properly rotate product on the wet rack, they should also regularly rotate product as it arrives in the back room,” says Strachan. “Having a disorganized back room, and not maintaining a first-in, first-out rotation, can contribute to higher shrink before the product even gets out onto the sales floor. Food safety concerns can arise when store shelves are not being cleaned regularly and properly. Unpackaged products also mean products are viewed as being exposed to multiple ‘touches’ before they go home with a consumer. The product rotation process is even more important for products under the misters than non-wet rack items.”

Daily Refreshing Required

radishesAs vegetables in the wet rack are the most sensitive to temperature and humidity, keeping them moist is essential to preserving the quality and nutritional value of the bulk items.

“Items that should be kept cold, but not wet, are incorrectly placed in the wet rack,” says Bob Borda, vice president of organic sales for Grimmway Farms, which grows and ships from Bakersfield, CA, and is the parent company of Cal-Organic Farms. “For example, baby carrots are packaged in bags with micro-perforation to allow the product to breathe. However, water can seep into perforated packs, which compromises the product’s integrity and shortens its shelf-life.”

To ensure freshness and limit food safety risks, Strachan suggests wet racks be refreshed, turned and sanitized every one to two days. Common mistakes include not rotating product, not culling or trimming items, not crisping items, which require water for rehydration, and not properly training employees. “Proper wet rack maintenance and management requires time and training from the retailers to consistently execute a plentiful, attractive, fresh-looking wet rack with a wide assortment of beautiful, colorful produce,” says Strachan.

Misting bagged or wrapped items can cause condensation, saturation, and fog, which can ultimately accelerate decay, wilting and molding, says Joey Bruno, category analyst with Salinas-based Tanimura & Antle. “Mister nozzles are sometimes hard to direct and control, so it’s best to merchandise all bulk items together as opposed to intermixing wrapped and bagged products throughout the rack,” he advises. “The finer the mist, the better as smaller water droplets are more easily absorbed.”

“The biggest mistake is not rotating. Also, not misting items that do great under the mister. I think in general, and it’s not just the misted produce, is an attitude that you can treat fresh produce like a can of soup.”

— Mike Corrigan, Corrigan Corp.

Based on the fixture, it’s best to merchandise items for proper water drainage. It can be difficult to apply water on product and the product only. Shoppers are easily averse to water on the shelves and floor. Conversely, not all items that require misting need the same amount — or frequency — of misting. Hearty greens and root vegetables are good examples of items that require less misting.

“It’s important to not stack or nest items too thickly, which prevents air circulation,” says Bruno. “Nozzles installed in fixture canopies allow water to trickle or run down if the product is properly stacked,” he says. “Retailers should pull product at the end of the day and store in the cold room overnight. Mislabeling similar items, particularly between organic and conventional, can lead to scanning issues at the register, or shopper mistrust.”

Misting Times

A misting system should provide perfect moisture coverage throughout the display, says Mike Corrigan, Corrigan’s chief executive. If not, adjustments should be made.

The best time to make adjustments is first thing in the morning or if it is a 24-hour store when business is slow so the produce clerk can visually check for dry areas or wilting product. “It is best to have one person responsible and eliminate the issue of multiple opinions,” he advises.

Workers should ensure the mist’s duration isn’t over-wetting or too short and drying product. Making minor half-second adjustments to the mist cycle and waiting until the following day to observe potential improvements or further changes will yield the ideal cycle, says Corrigan. Another consideration involves short misting times, about 3 to 5 seconds, the least objectionable durations for shoppers, he says.

“The biggest mistake is not rotating,” says Corrigan. “Also, not misting items that do great under the mister. I think in general, and it’s not just the misted produce, is an attitude that you can treat fresh produce like it’s a can of soup.”

Improving the Color Chain

Proper merchandising is critical for wet rack sales, says Walmart’s Campisi. “You have to be very smart about how you merchandise that whole section,” he says. “You want to make sure you’re merchandising your wet rack and at the same time, you are cross-merchandising your wet rack.”

The best way to merchandise the wet rack is to group items by occasion, positioning like-items together and complimentary items as a transition between each group, advises Grimmway’s Borda.

“For example, retailers can pair leaf lettuces with salad items such as green onions and radishes, and then arrange beets and herbs as a transition into cooking greens, leeks, and root vegetables,” he said.

“This will help shoppers recognize what they need and allow them to make choices among items with similar cooking applications. It’s important to arrange the items in the wet rack in a visually compelling way, using different colors and textures to create contrast among the set. This will attract consumer interest and keep the wet rack a popular destination for shoppers.”

To add visual interest, produce departments should do anything that can help create an actual or visual break between the products, such as using color or form breaks. Rotating and arranging products in varying ways with some facing out and some sideways also helps, advises Green Giant’s Strachan. As many of the misted items are green and can easily blend together, lighting is important to improve the visual appearance, he says.

Walmart stores display salad vegetables and cooking vegetables in separate sections with packaged salads and mushrooms, which don’t receive misting, in the center or adjacent to other vegetables. “Everything kind of works in concert, so you end up with a very well-merchandised wet rack that not only is appealing to customers so they can find the thing they’re looking for, as well as some things they didn’t realize they were looking for,” says Campisi.

“The challenge is to keep the section visually appealing by placing strong color breaks from one section to the next. The color breaks make the section visually appealing to customers,” he says.