Originally printed in the November 2018 issue of Produce Business.
Drive sales by concentrating on some fundamental marketing areas and adding a bit of creativity.
Peruvian asparagus is a major contributor to building demand in the category as trade from Peru continues to expand each year. “Peruvian asparagus represents a significant contribution to the U.S. asparagus market,” says Priscilla Lleras-Bush, coordinator of the Peruvian Asparagus Importers Association (PAIA).
In 2017, Peru exported a total of more than 173 million pounds of fresh asparagus to the U.S. market, according to USDA statistics. Lleras-Bush notes PAIA importers handle approximately 90 percent of that volume. “With steady quality imports year-over-year, we have persisted in our aim to supply U.S. consumers with quality fresh asparagus year-round,” she says.
Increased availability and consumption of asparagus is forecast to persist. “We are very optimistic about the future of the deal,” says Pat Compres, chief executive of Advance Customs Brokers in Miami. “It continues to grow every year and expand in timeframe.”
The reliability of Peruvian product contributes to promotable supply at retail. “Peruvian asparagus has proven to have consistent quality throughout its ‘big’ season mainly October through December,” says Sean Barganski, sales manager at Progressive Produce in Los Angeles.
Peru’s traditionally prime season runs from June to January and the late fall and winter months are prime for promotion. “Asparagus is a great product during this time period,” says Mark Cote, produce merchandiser for Redner’s Markets in Reading, PA, with 43 stores. “People are coming out of the summer months and into the cooler weather,” he says. “So, they’re looking for vegetables to steam or cook, and asparagus fits into such meal plans.”
Retailers can take advantage of consumer demand for asparagus during this timeframe by ensuring they’re in tune with a few key marketing areas.
1. Build Big Attractive Displays
As with most produce items, large displays are always effective in driving sales,” says Walter Yager, chief executive officer of Alpine Fresh in Doral, FL. And Brian Gibbons, produce director at Highland Park Market in Farmington, CT, with five stores, adds, “Having a nice colorful display often helps sales.”
However, Redner’s Cote cautions when building a massive display: ensure it is customer-friendly. “The display should not have anything blocking it or interfering with the shopper,” he says. “It should be built so multiple shoppers can access it easily. If you want to increase sales, make it powerful, make it big and make it shoppable.”
Progressive’s Barganski recommends taking an integrated wet rack approach and utilizing secondary displays during promotions. “These include front-of-store and side wings, as well as meat and seafood departments for cross promotion,” he says.
Displaying asparagus on end caps always will attract attention, according to Katiana Valdes, marketing director for Crystal Valley Foods in Miami. “It is important to always keep these displays full and rotated,” she says.
To take advantage of peak promotional opportunities, retailers are urged to alter displays at certain times. “Stores should change displays throughout the year,” says Barganski. “During the Peruvian season, they can utilize the big holidays including Thanksgiving and Christmas to garner more attraction for the item. There are opportunities to change the display during most holidays and February through July.”
Charlie Eagle, vice president business development for Southern Specialties in Pompano Beach, FL, agrees on the importance of varying displays. “We like to see island displays on days with high movement such as holidays, weekends, and times when the product will turn quickly,” he says.
2. Keep Product Cold, the Cut End Wet and Tips Dry
Refrigeration is fundamental to maintaining the integrity of asparagus starting at the packinghouse and continuing throughout the whole cold chain process, notes Barganski. “Some of the best practices for keeping asparagus refrigerated and hydrated include restocking from the back room when it’s time for display, displaying in a wet rack water bath, and using secondary display water baths. Hydration is key to holding integrity and quality.”
Tony Pinto, sourcing manager for Harvest Sensations in Miami, FL, agrees retailers should use water baths or display in breathable bags. “However, tips need to be kept dry,” he says.
Yet, retailers may make a calculated decision to pull product from refrigerated displays in certain instances. “Retailers with good movement frequently display product out of refrigeration,” says Eagle. “This is fine as long as the asparagus doesn’t spend too much time out of refrigeration.”
Marketers exhort retailers to keep close watch on such unrefrigerated product. “Crushed ice displays should be minimal and well placed with projected sell-through in a matter of hours to guarantee freshness to consumers,” says Valdes of Crystal Valley.
3. Consider Offering Variety
Retailers can increase ring by offering variety in both size and packaging. Traditionally, Peruvian product tends to be smaller in sizing. “Peruvian asparagus is often a smaller bunch but holds up well and displays nice because it’s uniform in size,” says Gibbons. “Most of our customers prefer standard to thin asparagus, which is what Peru mostly ships.”
Increasingly, the market considers multiple sizes for various reasons. “Smaller sizing is great for value-added and retail price points,” says Barganski. “Standard and Large are popular for conventional everyday selling, and Extra-Large and Jumbos are good for grilling-theme promotions and foodservice.”
Though for many years standard-sized asparagus has been the favorite among retailers, Jeff Friedman, president of CarbAmericas in Ft. Lauderdale, FL, reports a new inclination. “There is a trend right now for the U.S. customer base to ask for more large-size spears,” he says. “Standard is the new small. Customers are complaining about too much small-size in the standard pack, and the industry is seeing more rejections and a switch to large.”
Cote reports Redner’s experiences opportunity with larger-sized product. “Many people think thinner is better, but we disagree,” he says. “I prefer the thicker for its flavor and meatiness. You do have to prompt the shopper to cook it longer. In Europe, you almost never find thin asparagus. They tend to prefer the thicker, and we see this trending in the U.S., too.”
Yet sizing options may depend ultimately on availability, pricing and store preference. “During the Peruvian winter (June to September), bigger-sized asparagus is limited,” says Pinto.
“Throughout the year, the Peruvian standard is smaller than the Mexican standard. Retailers should concentrate more on small-sized asparagus due to the cost difference between that and standard sized.”
Retail produce also can expand asparagus options for customers through value-added and packaging. “Our Southern Selects value-added asparagus is available in several formats,” says Eagle.
“Typically, the tips in a microwave bag are merchandised next to our microwave line of specialties. Larger format bagged asparagus is found near other value-added products in an area that will accommodate the bags standing up.”
4. Capitalize on Color
By far, the majority of asparagus sold is green. Gibbons reports 90 percent of what Highland Park sells is green. Eagle agrees that green asparagus is the king in this category, though white and purple do see some demand. “We sell white asparagus year-round, but it is only about 10 percent of green asparagus sales,” he says. “Purple asparagus is becoming more sought after, but available supplies remain low for now.”
Though white is a limited-volume specialty crop, Crystal Valley has developed a strong and consistent white asparagus supply program. “We import and market white asparagus from Peru every week of the year,” says Valdes. “The majority of the white asparagus volume has been absorbed by the foodservice channel, with a much smaller percentage going into the retail sector.”
However, Valdes notes there is a huge opportunity for retail to educate consumers on this item that is already well-loved in Europe. “The U.S. retail customer is lacking awareness of the product, its distinct preparation requirements (it must be peeled) and recipe ideas,” she says.
Regardless of volume, retail can add excitement by utilizing the color options. “Color promotions work especially well for holiday promotions,” says Alpine’s Yager.
Retailers can promote colors by line-pricing them and displaying them in the same area of the store, suggests Barganski. “Displaying them next to each other gives a nice color display on the shelves to draw the customer’s eye,” he says. “We have also found consumers are paying attention to trends in the foodservice sector, where purple and white asparagus are being used more and more.”
CarbAmericas’ Friedman advises stores to add color according to season. “Purple asparagus is a fall/winter offering, while white and green are everyday movers and holiday options,” he says.
Cote observes white asparagus always moves well at Redner’s for Thanksgiving and Christmas. “It’s a bit more pricey but at holiday time we find money is not an object to many consumers,” he says.
5. Talk Up Health
Promoting the nutritional aspects of asparagus bumps sales. “Asparagus offers many health benefits, is extremely versatile and is easy to prepare,” says Valdes. “This makes it a great vegetable for consumers trying to live healthier lifestyles. Retailers can promote the health benefits and suggest recipes with in-store POS, demos, and on their websites or social media pages.”
Like many vegetables, asparagus is low in calories and high in nutrients, explains Eagle. “High quantities of folate help maintain good levels of red and white blood cells,” he says. “A meal of asparagus and eggs delivers high fiber and protein and keeps you feeling full and energized!”
PAIA encourages a focus on health for Peruvian asparagus and has promoted consumption in the U.S. “Health aspects for asparagus make it very attractive to every lifestyle,” says Lleras-Bush. “Asparagus is a good source of potassium, vitamin A and vitamin C. Asparagus is low in fat and contains no cholesterol. Asparagus is also rich in rutin and folacin, which have been proven important in the duplication of cells for growth and repair of the body.”
Barganski points out along with all the great health benefits, Americas Asparagus (Progressive Produce’s label) is also a non-GMO verified food. “This is a great promotable feature of this commodity because consumers want to know their produce comes naturally not genetically modified in a lab,” he says.
Nutritional benefits can be talked up using POS, tags and other signage options. “Using more hang tags on the bunches, POS materials, and demos are three great ways to get across nutritional info to the consumer,” says Friedman.
Signage also can focus on substitution options. “Retailers should promote health benefits of asparagus to educate consumers about how it is a healthy alternative they can incorporate in their diets,” says Alpine’s Yager.
6. Educate Shoppers on Use
Though asparagus is a well-known item, stores can lift sales by giving consumers even more usage options. “We encourage retailers to include asparagus offerings in their foodservice departments such as asparagus salads or roast asparagus,” says Eagle. “They can also cross merchandise in the meat and seafood departments and include it in meal ready-to-go and home recipe kits.”
Providing recipes also will stimulate purchases. Gibbons reports Highland Park puts a healthy recipe in the store flyer every week. “We typically use a produce item on sale,” he says.
One of the best methods for getting recipes/usage ideas into the hands of the consumer is POS handcards, according to Barganski. “On the back of our Americas Asparagus clip tag, we include recipe/usage ideas as well as the bar code and PLU,” he says.
Yager suggests printing recipes directly on asparagus packaging gives consumers on-the-spot ideas of how to prepare the product. “It may also inspire non-asparagus eaters to give it a try,” he says. “We prefer to use value-added packaging as our POS.”
Redner’s offers customers index cards with nutrition and usage information for all its vegetables and fruit. “They go out on the display so customers can easily find the information,” says Cote.
However, Barganski notes some important considerations for POS. “Material must be highly visible around the display of asparagus, making clear and concise what the offer is,” he says.
7. Look to Suppliers for Support
Retailers can team with suppliers for promotion and marketing backing. “We encourage retailers to look to us for support,” says Southern Specialties’ Eagle. “Our goal is to be in lock step with our retailers and their customers. We offer retailers seasonal promotional opportunities throughout the year.”
Crystal Valley’s marketing team is happy to work with retailers to develop custom POS for stores to promote asparagus programs. “Although consumption has increased over the last several years, there is still great potential for growth and opportunities to reach those consumers who might not know much about this delicious vegetable,” says Valdes. “It is important to continue to educate customers about usage and health benefits.”
Progressive Produce supports customers with a variety of materials. “All of our bunches come with clip tags,” says Barganski. “We also have POS cards and signage upon request from our retail partners.”
Each year, PAIA publishes a Fresh Asparagus Category Statistics and Trends report to aid stores. “The information in this document confirms how Peru is a leading import source to the U.S. and serves as a great tool to equip retailers to gain more sales,” says Lleras-Bush. “Contained within the report are sales trends by demographics, key buying trends for Peruvian asparagus and tips to increase asparagus sales.”
8. Pair It Up
Asparagus lends itself to easy cross merchandising, and retailers can find many simple ideas to increase ring. “The best cross-promotion ideas are items that pair well or are often used together,” says Alpine’s Yager. “Most people use olive oil when cooking asparagus — a great cross-promotion item. Other common ingredients found in many asparagus recipes include minced garlic, as well as parmesan cheese.”
Eagle suggests coupling asparagus with prosciutto in the deli. “Stores can also promote an Asparagus Vinaigrette Three Ways using green, white, and purple in prepared foods,” he says. “Asparagus and lemons go great with seafood, and you can add grilling utensils near asparagus displays in summer.”
Pinto proposes promoting asparagus wrapped in bacon. “Stores can merchandise asparagus in shippers in the meat department,” he says.
Stores can look to brunch for inspiration according to Valdes. “Asparagus is becoming a popular brunch item and can be added to quiches, frittatas and other egg dishes,” she says. “It can also be enjoyed in a crudité platter so it is beneficial to cross-merchandise asparagus with ranch and yogurt dips.”
Another creative example for cross merchandizing, suggests Barganski, is a color break display. “Use a secondary table and split the table with colorful items – red, yellow, green (asparagus), and purple,” he says. “Asparagus and artichokes seem to pair well together, so think about a secondary table splitting asparagus and artichokes.”
9. Give Shoppers a Taste
Getting product into customers’ mouths is a surefire way to increase sales. “It is important to educate customers about usage and health, and in-store demos are a great vehicle for increasing retail movement of both white and green asparagus,” says Valdes. “Since many U.S. consumers don’t know about white asparagus or how it tastes, demos are a perfect way to let customers try it and in turn purchase it when they might not have before.”
Eagle reports several retailers demo products as part of their in-house recipe programs. “Demos are an effective way to market all the ingredients incorporated in a recipe,” he says.
Redner’s has taste stations in-store to promote ingredients. “We set one up in every store and have a dietitian come in to coordinate tasting,” says Cote. “This is usually done during high-traffic areas and days. The dietitian works with our senior buyer to decide on a particular recipe showcasing several products.”
In-store demos can be especially effective during promotions and holidays according to Barganski. “It is best to put demos in a highly visible area, front of store or outside the front doors of the store, to attract the most foot traffic,” he says. “Our chef does in-store demos where customers not only see exciting ways to use Peruvian asparagus but also participate in a cooking lesson and tasting.”
10. Follow Issues Affecting the Deal
The industry works with government and the private sector to continue to find ways to make the supply and logistics chain even more effective. “PAIA has been proactively working with government agencies to streamline logistics for imports into the U.S. that will benefit U.S. retailers and wholesalers,” says Lleras-Bush. “The mission of PAIA has always been to promote continuous advancement for asparagus in the logistics, political and marketing areas.”
Advances in ocean transportation are positioned to affect the deal. “Last year for the first time in the asparagus industry, we were able to ship ocean cargo on a nine-day service,” says Compres of Advance Customs Brokers. “We are seeing double the ocean cargo this year because of successful trials in this service. A nine-day service is short enough to maintain the quality asparagus. We still see lot of asparagus being shipped by air as well, but having a shorter, reliable ocean option does affect the business.”
Lleras-Bush observes the positive flexibility of having additional transportation options. “The maritime option is a great advantage, especially during times when air space is tight or not available,” says. “We are also looking at potential technologies to maintain shelf-life during the logistics chain.”