Summer’s Secret Weapon: Strategic Merchandising

California Avocado DisplayPhoto Courtesy of California Avocado Commission

Seasonal bounty of domestically grown fruits and vegetables make robust produce sales.

National Mango Board Display

Photo Courtesy of National Mango Board

Summer is synonymous with fresh produce. It’s a time when fruits and vegetables are in abundance and sales soar in produce departments, thanks in part to summer holidays, barbeques and picnics.

“We gear up and really look forward to the summer selling season,” says Scot Olson, vice president of produce and floral for Grocery Outlet Inc., a 265-store chain based in Emeryville, CA. “During this time of year there are so many added options for our customers to choose from, and their increased active lifestyle during these months really helps us sell. Creating ‘produce events’ centered around some of the big holidays such as Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and ‘Hot August Nights’ helps drive excitement and added fresh sales here. Seasonal events, such as ‘Melon Mania’ and ‘Berry Bargains,’ further our fun and ability to promote fresh.”

Here are ways to maximize sales and profits of eight popular summer produce items:

Avocados. Summer is the strongest quarter of the year for avocado sales. Season-long promotions on California avocados, forecast to total 200 million pounds, have proven to be effective, says Jan DeLyser, vice president of marketing for the California Avocado Commission (CAC) in Irvine, CA. “The Fourth of July has grown to be one of the top avocado consumption events of the year. We recommend gearing up for American summer holidays with patriotic merchandising and continuing through the Fourth of July and Labor Day, supply permitting.”

One way DeLyser suggests selling more avocados in the summer is to cross-merchandise with other local and seasonal produce to boost overall basket ring. Picnic and barbeque-themed examples include guacamole with roasted corn, avocado slices on a burger and avocado as an ingredient in traditional cool, creamy summer salads.

The CAC offers a recipe brochure for retailers and works with them one-on-one to create unique merchandising programs. Elements in these events have included educating store-level produce personnel, display contests, cross-merchandising with custom recipes featuring in-season produce tie-ins with signage and store-made guacamole.

“This summer, at select retailers, we are partnering with Houweling’s tomatoes on an avocado and tomato bruschetta recipe and retail tie-ins. Geo-targeted digital radio and online advertising will encourage shoppers to go to certain retailers to find California avocados. Once in-store, radio will remind the shoppers to head to the produce department to buy avocados. Merchandising aids such as California-themed avocado display bins encourage multiple purchases,” says DeLyser.

Fourth of July Blueberries

Photo Courtesy of US High Bush Blueberry Council

Berries. Supplies of strawberries will be plentiful this summer, according to Chris Christian, senior vice president of Watsonville, CA-headquartered California Strawberry Commission (CSC). “In 2016, we had record fresh production from the last week of July through the end of September, more than 5 million trays per week. This was driven by a shift to more productive strawberry varieties in the Santa Maria and Watsonville districts, and excellent weather. We project similar or higher summer production this year, as our early season rains have strengthened the plants.”

Christian recommends merchandising strawberries as the anchor of summer berry patch displays featuring all berry types.

North American blueberries will be bountiful through October, according to Mark Villata, executive director of the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council (USHBC) in Folsom, CA. “In recent years, Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club, Ahold, Wegmans, Safeway and several other smaller retailers have added rolling refrigerated cases as secondary displays for berries, which has increased space allocation. Many also use refrigerated secondary displays in other sections of the store to take advantage of cross-merchandising opportunities.”

“Local is big for us. Several retailers put our picture and information about our farm up as signage at displays. Shoppers like to know the story.”

— Aaron Fletcher,Todd Greiner Farms Packing

Recipes are ideal vehicles to build both berry and basket rings. “Catch the attention of shoppers who are planning a holiday menu. For example, Blueberry Whoopie Pies are a great patriotic dessert for a Memorial Day cookout. For Father’s Day, there’s Tennessee BBQ Tacos with Blueberry BBQ Sauce; for the Fourth of July, Blueberry Sparklers; and for Labor Day, a refreshing Blueberry Sangria to end the season,” says Villata. These recipes are available on the USHBC website.

The CSC will promote its 8-a-Day challenge via social media channels this summer. The challenge encourages consumers to eat at least one serving of eight strawberries daily. “Retailers can enhance our efforts by promoting strawberries on social media using the hashtag #8ADay,” says Christian.

The USHBC’s summer campaign, which runs from mid-May through mid-September, features simple recipes and partnerships with individuals, food and fitness influencers to inspire the use of blueberries as a go-to summer food. The campaign includes recipe- and wellness-focused videos.

Corn. Sweet corn is a huge summer seller, with supplies close to home for retailers in the east, Midwest and west. Growers in these regions agree sweet corn sells well in big displays, end caps and out of bins.

The spring harvest on the East Coast in Florida moves up to Georgia and Alabama at the end of May, according to Scott McDulin, vice president of marketing and retail sales for Schmieding Produce, headquartered in Springdale, AR. “Certain areas want yellow corn. Bi-color has come a long way and is Number One in some areas. White sales are mostly limited to the New York area. Beyond that, bulk sales are king, but more retailers are moving to tray pack because it’s less messy. The newest move for us is to a plastic eco crate rather than wood. It’s a little more expensive for the grower, but cost advantageous for retailers since they don’t have to dispose of the wood.”

Sweet corn starts harvest in Indiana right after the Fourth of July and in Michigan at the beginning of August, says Aaron Fletcher, sales and logistics associate at Todd Greiner Farms Packing in Hart, MI. “We send out a weekly newsletter to retailers to keep them updated on the crop. Local is big for us. Several retailers put our picture and information about our farm up as signage at displays. Shoppers like to know the story.”

Promotions are great ways to move more volume for both the retailer and supplier.

“Holidays are an obvious choice for promotions; consumers can come to expect staple promotions on certain commodities linked with the respected holiday, such as sweet corn for Labor Day — this is an important holiday pairing for us in Michigan,” says Tyler Hodges, fresh produce sales associate for Superior Sales, in Hudsonville, MI. “Promotions are also a great tool for correlating peak harvests with ad pulls.”

The ‘local’ theme also carries to the West Coast. “Some of our customers like to use the ‘Brentwood Sweet Corn’ as point-of-sale, since Brentwood is renowned for being the best-tasting corn in the world,” says Damon Barkdull, in sales and business development at Uesugi Farms, Gilroy, CA. “It really has built a name for itself with customers in 11 western states.”

Barkdull adds this season Uesugi Farms will offer a value-added organic sweet corn pack, a 4-count overwrap tray, from June through October. “The demand for organics has increased so much, we think this one is a winner,” he says.

Grapes. West Coast retailers may be able to promote first-of-the-season California grapes for the Memorial Day weekend if the ad breaks late in the week, says Rob Spinelli, a sales associate at Anthony Vineyards, Bakersfield, CA. “For East Coast retailers, who are further away from harvest areas, it’s mid-June for promotions.”

Organically grown California grapes are available in May, with promotional volumes in June through August, Spinelli says. This season Anthony Vineyards will market its trademarked varieties, including Sweet Sapphire, a black-skinned elongated grape ideal for late summer and early fall merchandising.

“To celebrate the start of the season, a California grape retail display contest is being held in June where retailers across the country can participate to win prizes,” says Cindy Plummer, vice president of domestic marketing for Fresno, CA-based California Table Grape Commission (CTGC). “Hundreds of retail stores participated in a similar display contest in the fall season last year.”

To maximize sales, promote California grapes three to five times per month, says Plummer. Doing so can increase sales by 30 to 57 percent. Front page ads create the greatest impact on the grape category followed by front page ads coupled with in-store price reductions.

“The Commission offers promotional incentives through traffic radio, where retailers have the opportunity to tag their store name onto 10-second announcer-read promotional messages that include mention of grapes from California and a retail chain. Traffic radio is available to those retailers who upgrade their ad to a front page or multiple variety grape ad,” says Plummer.

Mangos. Mangos are one of the top five produce sales categories year-round at Fiesta Mart, a 60-store chain based in Houston. “We really get aggressive during the summer with our mango merchandising,” says Steve Williams, director of produce and floral. “There is a huge 100-plus-case display in the store’s front lobby where 10 to 15 people can shop at one time. We run aggressive ads three out of four weeks each month on multiples like 3/$1 or 4/$1, and use point-of-sale from the National Mango Board (NMB), including recipe cards and bins. We also participate in the Board’s Mango Mania Display Contest.”

Mexican mangos peak between the months of June and July, though availability will be abundant from May and conclude in September, according to Sandra Aguilar, in marketing and strategic planning for Ciruli Brothers, Rio Rico, AZ. “The best way to take advantage of these peak volume periods is to promote frequently with bigger, creative front-end displays in higher-traffic areas. Display mangos with signage to educate consumers how to prepare the fruit.”

A summer 2015 store display test by the National Mango Board, Orlando, FL, revealed merchandising mangos adjacent to stone fruit had a 45 percent net impact on mango volume and dollars compared to the control panel, in which mangos were displayed in the tropicals set. For this reason, the NMB recommends displaying mangos with popular seasonal summer items such as watermelon, blueberries, avocados and stone fruits. The NMB offers free POS materials featuring summer recipes and usage ideas, such as mango avocado salsa.

This summer the NMB is focusing its promotional efforts on education to consumers. Included in this is the recently launched campaign to rename the Ataulfo mango the “Honey” mango. The NMB has developed a series of variety-specific header cards, including one for the Honey Mango.

“The popular Ataulfo mango has faced hurdles with both consumers and retailers, who love the variety, but struggle to pronounce the tongue-twisting name,” says Angela Serna, the NMB’s communications manager. “With Honey, a more consumer-friendly name, this sweet, fiberless mango is sure to find new fans. Retailers can help by using ‘Honey’ in ads, on signs or anywhere they communicate with shoppers about mangos.”

On the supply side, Ciruli Brothers continues to work on developing new packaging. Currently, the company offers fruit in various pack sizes including the traditional 4-kg box, a smaller display-ready case and various size clamshells.

“We are also increasing our ripened mango program, which has gained substantial momentum with retail customers. All our ripened fruit is labeled with a Ripe On label and is supported with various POS material so customers know they are buying ripe, juicy and ready-to-eat fruit,” says Aguilar.

Superior Sales PeppersPeppers. There will be good availability on green, red and yellow bell peppers, says Uesugi Farms’ Barkdull. “We have both conventional and organic peppers during the summer. On green bells, June through September are great times to promote. We usually don’t see any gaps and have good quality and production. With red bells, July to September are the best times to promote, starting in July. Pepper sales really pick up in the summer months, when folks are barbequing.”

Barkdull recommends merchandising the three colors together to offer customers an eye-popping display. “This season, in addition to our regular bell pepper, we’ve planted organic bell peppers,” Barkdull says.

Radishes. The Memorial Day weekend typically kicks off the Ohio summer vegetable harvest, says Jeff Walker, sales associate at TC Marketing, Napoleon, OH. “Bunch radishes sometimes get started a week earlier. Fourth of July and Labor Day are the only Ohio/Michigan seasons given to promotional periods.”

Television chefs and cooking shows promoting radish use have certainly increased awareness and usage. “Radishes, in this regard, are like apple pie and baseball,” says Walker.

Watermelon. The entire melon category, including watermelons, are the focus of an aggressive summer marketing and merchandising campaign at Fiesta Mart.

Schmieding Produce Harvest

Photo Courtesy of Schmieding Produce

“We’re going to push melons in a big way from May to August. This spans from roadside billboards to greater selection in-store. We’ll expand our offerings of variety melons, such as the Athena, Casaba and Juan Canary, as well as offer all sizes of watermelon, including fresh-cut, 45- and 60-count round seedless and 35-count seeded. Our goal is to double category sales from last year,” says Williams.

Supplies of domestically grown watermelon run from April through September, says Schmieding Produce’s McDulin. “Retail bin programs typically start with Memorial Day promotions. The biggest holiday for watermelon is Fourth of July. Promotional volume is also usually available for Labor Day.”

To help boost sales, the National Watermelon Promotion Board (NWPB), Winter Springs, FL, will host its annual watermelon display contest, which is open to all retail chains, independent retailers and commissaries. Entries are accepted for displays built in the months of July and August.

This season the NWPB will have a stronger presence in the field of retail dietitians. “Supermarket retail dietitians (RDs) continue to be an influential audience to educate consumers on nutrition,” says Juliemar Rosado, director of retail operations and international marketing. “Consumer research conducted in 2016 indicates more than half of those surveyed were not aware of watermelon’s health benefits, yet 73.5 percent replied they would purchase watermelon in the future if they knew it was healthy and nutritious for them. Supermarket RDs are a unique way to disseminate watermelon’s nutritional benefits to shoppers.”