Ways To Sell More Fresh Herbs

Originally printed in the July 2018 issue of Produce Business.

Trends driving heightened consumer interest and bottom-line sales hikes.

There’s clear interest in fresh culinary herbs. Any doubt to this claim is easily dispelled by searching allrecipes.com and search for ‘fresh herbs.’ There are nearly 8,000 recipes, while ‘dried herbs’ results in fewer than 4,000. This isn’t an anomaly. Conduct the same search on foodnetwork.com and recipes with fresh herbs outnumber those for dried 2-to-1.

These results are tasty news for retailers. That’s because these sites cater to home cooks, and 96.6 percent of U.S. consumers shop for food at traditional brick-and-mortar supermarkets, according to June 2017-released research by San Francisco-based online market research firm, AYTM. There are three additional reasons for retailers to devote merchandising time and attention to fresh herbs: SKUs are high-margin, add incremental sales and are ripe for impulse sales strategies.

“Talk about a growing category; more people are using fresh herbs than ever before,” says Richard Stiles, director of produce and floral for Redner’s Markets, a Reading, PA-chain with 44 markets and 13 Quick Shoppes in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware. “For us, they’re selling like crazy.”

Sales of fresh herbs were up 2.8 percent in volume and 6.1 percent in dollars over the most recent 52 weeks ending March 25, 2018, according to IRI FreshLook data as supplied by the Gourmet Garden, an Australian-based producer of value-added, lightly dried and stir-in herb pastes, which was purchased by the Hunt Valley, MD-headquartered McCormick & Company in 2016.

Here are eight suggestions to sell even more fresh herbs:

1. TAP INTO TRENDS

Trends driving consumer purchase and consumption of fresh herbs are fourfold, according to proprietary research conducted on behalf of a retail customer by the Edible Garden Corp, a Belvidere, NJ-based hydroponic grower of ‘living’ herbs or herbs with root systems intact.

“First, consumers are more open to experimenting with their cooking. Foodie magazines have helped propel this growth. So has watching TV chefs using fresh herbs — it has inspired at-home chefs to do the same,” says Jim Kras, president and chief marketing officer. “Second, consumers are open to more sophisticated tastes with the growing popularity of ethnic foods and the growing diversity of the U.S. population. Third, people today are more concerned about healthy eating options; they want fresh, local ingredients. Fourth, the number and variety of fresh herbs have never been more accessible.”

These trends haven’t changed over recent years so much as they have strengthened and intensified, says Charles ‘Chick’ Goodman, the Soquel, CA-based vice president of sales and marketing for the Herbs Unlimited Group, a division of Coosemans Worldwide. As a result, “the category has shown double-digit growth for more than a decade to the point where initially we were trying to gain customers from the dried-spice aisle, and now customers are more likely to start in the produce herb section and go to the dry section for items they can’t find.”

2. SELL WHAT SELLS

Sales of specific fresh herbs tend to be seasonal at New Seasons Market, a 21-store chain headquartered in Portland, OR. “The exception to this is basil,” says Jeff Fairchild, produce buyer. “There seem to be more ways to use fresh basil, so its sales are strong year-round. We source locally in-season and from greenhouse producers in the winter.”

Similarly, and over on the East Coast, basil is the No. 1 selling culinary herb at Redner’s. Stiles stocks his departments with fresh bunch, clamshell-packed and potted forms. “Customers really like the potted basil and other potted herbs because it’s convenient, stays fresh longer and is always at the ready.”

Basil generates upwards of 40 percent of fresh herb sales because of its multiple uses, according to Herbs Unlimited’s Goodman. “It’s used raw in pesto and in cooking. Basil is often the first fresh herb people try, so once they have success with basil they are then willing to expand to other herbs.”

Beyond basil, other top-selling fresh herbs are mint, rosemary and thyme, according to Chris Wada, marketing manager for Thermal, CA-based North Shore Living herbs and greens, which retails approximately 20 types of living culinary herbs. “The popularity of infused waters, cocktails and summer berry or melon desserts has propelled fresh mint to the second-most popular herb in recent years.”

Sage, chives, dill, cilantro and oregano are additional must-have herbs in a retail display, recommends Chris Miele, sales manager for Jacobs Farm/Del Cabo, an organic herb grower based in Pescadero, CA.

“Herb mixes, like a poultry mix of rosemary, sage and thyme, do really well because they are recipe-ready,” says Redner’s Stiles.

Category variety and volume have increased the basic selection of herbs retailers display to 14 to 15 today, according to Herbs Unlimited’s Goodman. “Some retailers will carry upwards of 20.”

3. CATER TO ETHNIC FLAVORS

Uncommon herbs (such as chervil, lovage, lemon balm and papalo) ranked No. 8 among Top 20 Food Trends as identified by the nearly 700 professional chef members of the American Culinary Federation surveyed in the Washington, DC-based National Restaurant Association’s What’s Hot 2018 Culinary Forecast. What’s more, uncommon herbs are No. 1 in the subcategory of produce.

“A bit more of a chef’s offering might include tarragon, lemongrass, bay leaves, Thai basil and Makrut lime leaves. Otherwise, trending herbs are rooted in traditional Southeast Asian cuisine. Thai basil, lemongrass and Makrut lime leaves all offer rich flavors to the diverse food history of the region,” says Jacobs Farm/Del Cabo’s Miele.

Thai basil, lemon basil and opal basil are a trio of ethnic-inspired herbs offered at New Seasons Market. “These are more seasonal in availability and not as big in demand as regular basil,” says Fairchild.

Methi leaves, an herb traditionally used in Indian-style curries and dahls, has grown significantly in demand over the past two years, according to Robert Schueller, director of public relations for Melissa’s/World Variety Produce in Vernon, CA.

4. OFFER ORGANIC

Herbs, spices and seasonings ranked third in the top 10 organic commodities in 2017, based on FreshFacts on Retail, 2017 Year in Review, published by the Washington, DC-headquartered United Fresh Produce Association. Only three commodities in this list, one being herbs, spices and seasonings, rated double-digit growth in volume and dollars in 2017 compared to the year prior.

“We have seen a 20-percent gain in sales of organic herbs and expect to see growth continue like this for some time. The top five for us are basil, thyme, rosemary, chives and dill. Many of the organic herbs are outselling conventional items at Melissa’s. Organic herbs are available year-round now,” says Schueller.

Herbs Unlimited recently started shipping its Ground 2 Table brand organic herb blends, which also include chef-designed, targeted dry spice packets to function as mini meal kits. “We have Seafood, Steak, Poultry and Burger kits. Consumers can add these to their protein of choice with about 5-minutes prep time and $3 cost, so these can be quicker and less-expensive alternatives to the Blue Apron, Hello Fresh and other meal kit offerings,” says Goodman.

“Fresh herb users remain the best produce customers because they don’t just grab bags of salads, onions and potatoes and move on. These are the home cooks who use the high-margin specialty items like fancy mushrooms, peppers, shallots and the like.”

— Charles ‘Chick’ Goodman, Herbs Unlimited Group

5. SERVE UP CONVENIENT PACKAGING

Some retailers sell fresh herbs in bulk. However, the perishability of these products and need for small portions makes packaging popular.

“We are seeing a resurgence in bulk displays as some consumers perceive them as ‘fresh from the field,’ while others are looking for less packaging and especially less plastic. However, packaged herbs generally have longer shelf life. While clamshells are still the preferred method, as they protect against mechanical damage, we offer a high-tech flexible clamshell with MAP (modified atmosphere technology) breathable bag technology. This extends shelf life up to 20 percent, which is important to maintaining high quality and reducing shrink. These clamshells are resealable, so they extend shelf life in the consumer’s refrigerator as well. Also, and importantly, they use two-thirds less plastic than rigid clamshells, therefore fit with retail chains’ sustainability initiatives,” explains Herbs Unlimited’s Goodman.

Specific to herbs sold with roots, “Our clamshell acts like a mini greenhouse and provides roots the right amount of moisture to keep the plant alive. Living herbs last up to 3 to 4 times longer than cut herbs, either packaged or bunched in bulk displays,” says North Shore Living’s Wada.

Package sizes are growing smaller.

“Portions that are just enough for one recipe, with nothing left over, is emerging as an important part of the category,” says Jeff Bruff, vice president and general manager for Miami-based Rock Garden South, Inc. “We’re seeing a nice bump in overall and incremental sales for 0.25- and 0.50-ounce packs. That’s not to say that 0.75- and 1.0-ounce packs, or larger in the case of basil and mint, aren’t growing like gangbusters as well.”

6. DISPLAY FRONT AND CENTER

The high-impulse sales nature of fresh herbs makes prominent displays most successful, says Camilo Villaveces, owner and chief executive of Fresh Start Produce LLC, a Bronx, NY-based importer of Colombian-grown herbs. “When placed in a refrigerated unit at the entrance of the produce department, customers who didn’t remember or didn’t think about fresh herbs will be instantly reminded.”

Herbs Unlimited’s Goodman agrees. “Fresh herbs should have large displays with good visual prominence near the other ingredients that home chefs are likely to incorporate. Fresh herb users remain the best produce customers because they don’t just grab bags of salads, onions and potatoes and move on. These are the home cooks who use the high-margin specialty items like fancy mushrooms, peppers, shallots and the like.”

Companies such as Jacobs Farm/Del Cabo offer retailers in-store, point-of-sale materials that highlight flavor profiles and give consumers recipe ideas, says Miele. “We also offer quick set shelf displays during high-volume holidays for in-store, cross-promotional opportunities.”

Minimize shrink in fresh herbs by displaying in refrigeration, away from misters if packaged. However, basil is cold-sensitive and should be displayed at 55 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit.

7. MERCHANDISE SUGGESTIVELY

Use fresh herbs as a sales driver when it comes to consumers filling their shopping carts, suggests Edible Garden’s Kras. “Instead of positioning herbs as an add on, educate shoppers on how many different meals they can get out of particular herbs. Do this with meal ideas and recipes in circulars, point-of-sale and online. This can drive a higher cart ring at the check-out.”

Udyan Khanna, general manager for Gourmet Garden North America and vice president of sales, Economy Brands for McCormick & Company, Sparks, MD, agrees. “The fresh herb purchase in-store is primarily recipe-driven, tends to be a planned purchase and has a high rate of multi-item purchase. It therefore makes sense to offer consumers a destination fresh-herb and spice category where they can get all their ingredient needs for preparing a meal. In our experience, when you combine an herb promotion with a recipe promotion at a retailer, it has the best results as it provides inspiration and usage as well as a value to the shopper.

“In addition, when you add in education (such as a chef demo in-store), it is an effective promotion attracting shoppers who stay engaged at the store and in the category long-term.”
One effective way to achieve this is through cross merchandising.

“We display herbs in the tomato section, next to the cooking greens and over in the meat section next to roasts and poultry, especially at the holidays,” says Redner’s Stiles.

Herbs Unlimited’s Goodman suggests merchandising pine nuts and olive oil next to basil, with a pesto recipe in a high-traffic flow location.

Bundling is a second way to sell fresh herbs as part of a meal solution. Fairchild at New Seasons Market accomplishes this by having produce staff create value-added over-wrapped packages that combine ingredients like fresh rosemary with potatoes.

“Rather than have shoppers stand there and figure out what and how much they need, we make it easy by providing this in one meal-sized package. It’s convenient and builds customer’s confidence in cooking with fresh herbs,” say Fairchild.

8. PROMOTE YEAR-ROUND

Fresh herb sales traditionally spike at retail during the winter holidays.

“We see a 50- to 60-percent increase in impulse sales at holiday time,” says Redner’s Stiles.

Year-round availability from domestic and import markets makes any season a great time to sell more herbs. “In the summer, mint sales increase 30 percent and oregano by 10 percent,” says Fresh Start Produce’s Villaveces.

Chives and cilantro are springtime favorites while sage and thyme sell better in the fall, according to Jacobs Farm/Del Cabo’s Miele.

“Generally, herbs are not price-sensitive, and home chefs are looking for quality, not price,” notes Herbs Unlimited Group’s Goodman. “That being said, an occasional 2-for or 3-for deal may encourage consumers to try a new flavor, so this can add value. However, we absolutely do not suggest discounts at holidays, especially Thanksgiving and Christmas. Retailers are going to sell all they can stock anyway, so why sacrifice margin for no reason?”

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