Originally printed in the January 2018 issue of Produce Business.
The Chinese New Year brings opportunity for the produce industry.
Families and feasts are at the heart of the Chinese society, and with this year’s New Year celebration, which starts Feb. 16, retailers are planning to ensure that all the necessary ingredients are available to welcome in Year 4715, the Year of the Brown Earth Dog.
Also known as the “Spring Festival” or the “Lunar New Year,” the centuries-old celebration honors ancestral deities and presents an occasion for Chinese families to gather for their annual reunion dinner, a repast comparable to a Thanksgiving feast.
The meal is extensive, ranging from pork, chicken and fish dishes to a communal hot pot and lots of produce. Eight individual dishes are served to reflect the belief of good fortune associated with that number. Because this year’s event falls on a Friday, extended weekend or weeklong stays are being planned, and that means many meals will need to be prepared.
Chinese New Year is popular in the United States, thanks to the rise in the number of Asian-Americans. From 6 percent of the U.S. population today, Asians are expected to outnumber Hispanics and comprise 38 percent of America’s immigrants by 2065, according to a report by the Pew Research Center entitled, Modern Immigration Wave Brings 59 Million to U.S., Driving Population Growth and Change Through 2065. And, according to the latest census numbers, the three largest Chinese-American metropolitan areas are Greater New York, the San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland area and Los Angeles. Collectively, these cities represent a marketing base of close to nearly 2 million people. It’s important to note that Chinese New Year is also celebrated by those from Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Singapore and Malaysia.
Asian-Americans are major produce consumers, so it’s no surprise that Chinese New Year is produce-centric. The Produce for Better Health Foundation’s 2015 Study on America’s Consumption of Fruits and Vegetables reported Asian-Americans rated 732 annual eatings per capita of fruits and vegetables combined, more than White/Non-Hispanic Americans or African-Americans.
Chinese New Year offers an opportunity for retailers to showcase specialty items Asian customers are looking for, and at the same time, introduce mainstream shoppers to fruits and vegetables they may not have tried before. Plus, it offers retailers an opportunity to add some fun and excitement to the produce department.
“Our mix is huge, about 30 different Asian vegetables, because this population is the second-largest demographic behind Hispanics. And it’s a population that is passionate about food and consumes a lot of vegetables, especially at holiday time, when eight or 10 courses are standard for the holiday meal,” says Bobby Bennen Jr., president of Ta-De Distributing and the Red Lotus label in Nogales, AZ.
As the calendar approaches, retailers ready themselves with orders in transit, items ranging from bok choy to broccoli, mustard greens to Mandarin oranges, and a wide variety of produce items that have symbolism — bamboo shoots represent a new start; bean sprouts and their connection to the positive; red carrots for good luck; lychee nuts and their relationship to close family ties; kumquats for symbolizing wealth; and peanuts for long life. Wise store suppliers also remember snow peas symbolize unity, garlic chives represent long life and mixed vegetables are synonymous with family harmony.
“No matter the size of town they live in, retailers should get to know their customer demographics, especially in the ethic marketplace,” says Darryl Wong, a community college culinary curriculum instructor whose family is from China and has owned Lotus Garden Cantonese and Szechuan restaurant in Tucson, AZ, for more than 50 years. “Be in tune with your clientele and their produce needs. Try to get a handle on customer preferences. Take some time to walk the aisles and meet and greet your customers. Know who they are and what — and how much — they will buy so there are no post-holiday leftovers.”
Space allocation requirements for fruits and vegetables need to be considered when marketing to Asian-Americans. The idea is to create attractive, vibrant displays.
“Melissa’s offers more than 65 items promoting the culture of Chinese foods,” says Schuller. “Items range from fresh fruits and vegetables to specialty items like won ton and egg roll wrappers, along with a full variety of noodle products in the produce department.”
What’s great about Chinese New Year is this isn’t the only holiday for ethnic growers; it’s a foodie holiday.
— Alex Jackson Berkley, Freida’s Inc.
Schueller recommends setting up a section in the produce department that offers a one-stop destination for all items used in celebration of the holiday. “The image of freshness, quality, consistency and variety must be perceived by the customer. You need a clean, fresh, organized display, which means wetting it down and straightening it daily. Never stack Asian produce high, as some items are sensitive. Organize the produce so that you allow for a breathable area.”
Berkley looks at Chinese New Year as a foodie holiday. “What’s great about Chinese New Year is this isn’t the only holiday for ethnic grocers, it’s a foodie holiday,” she says. “Chinese food is the No. 1 ethnic-consumed food in the United States; with an increasing number of Chinese restaurants inspiring shoppers to cook this type of cuisine at home, larger stores need to make sure they’re calling out the items in the store so shoppers know what is available. This is a key to compete with smaller, independent ethnic grocers who are produce-heavy.”
Many industry veterans recommend temporary installation of a refrigerated Chinese New Year spot display that allows for the inclusion of the popular fruits and vegetables, along with other complementary purchase items.
Promotion, Advertising & Timing
Chinese New Year is also an opportunity to target non-Asians to purchase produce — more and more consumers are experimenting with produce they usually don’t put in their shopping cart.
“Melissa’s offers customized signage and recipe pads for promotion, along with additional holiday recipe suggestions,” says Schueller. “The produce department isn’t the only area for Chinese New Year food items, but our signage and recipe availabilities suggest tie-ins with meat and condiments to make the meal complete.”
Chris Ciruli of Ciruli Brothers, Rio Rico, AZ, says, “We cater to a tremendous number of Chinese customers. The tough part about the seasonality of this market is having product in season for Chinese New Year if it starts early, like some years at the end of January. If you can hit your items in time for the celebration, it’s a fantastic promotional push for anyone in the industry. We carry just about all the most highly requested produce items; our home run is the Champagne mango. If you can get an early mango deal in there, that’s a big part of Chinese New Year.”
California’s Frieda’s Specialty Produce is offering special training and programming to help retailers ring in the Year of the Dog by sharing a holiday promotion playbook, conducting team training, point-of-sales support and key merchandising recommendations to create successful programs. “The official holiday begins Feb. 16, but the celebrating starts a few days before and continues for a couple of weeks after with feasts focusing on fresh produce, meat and seafood,” says Oakley Boren, trade show manager.
With a 45-year track record helping retailers create successful Chinese New Year programs, Frieda’s keys in on the traditional lucky number six and offers half a dozen reasons retailers ought to consider adding a promotion — boosts winter sales, provides a unique in-store experience, highlights the produce showcase, causes a halo effect, attracts a growing Asian population and intrigues a growing general market because it’s a food holiday for all.