The Winning Formula for Lifting Consumption

Produce Forks

Industry experts discuss the numbers and share valuable lessons.

Raspberry Fingers

In a 20-year span raspberry consumption surged 400 percent.

The old saying, “The more things change the more they stay the same,” is relevant to the produce business. Despite industry innovations, per capita consumption of fruits and vegetables in the United States is relatively flat. More specifically, between 1994 and 2014, fresh fruit and vegetable consumption increased only 1 percent, or from 318.5 to 321.6 pounds, according to the USDA’s Economic Research Service’s Food Availability (per capita) Data System, published Feb. 1, 2016.

The good news is that this flatline on intake isn’t universal. Consumption of some fruits and vegetables has jumped over this same timeframe, according to USDA data. These include berries, asparagus, peppers, avocados and tangerines. (See Top 10 Fruits & Vegetables In Per Capita Consumption – 1994-2014 on page 41).

“The categories that have seen growth and are winning within the produce department are ‘trendy’ products that offer bold flavor, snacking opportunities, and health and convenience benefits, while the more ‘staple’ fruit and vegetable category sales are stagnant or declining,” says Jennifer Campuzano, account manager for the Chicago-based Nielsen Perishables Group.

This rise in some produce items over others stems from factors both external and internal to the produce industry.

“Over the past decade the fresh produce industry has been aided by an increased number of food-related television show, social media and the continued demand from consumers for flavorful, healthy and convenient-to-eat foods,” says Keith Buscemi, vice president of produce for Eden Prairie,MN-based SuperValu, the fifth largest food retailer in the U.S. market.“The exposure certain fruits and vegetables receive through media and marketing campaigns excites food-centric consumers. These campaigns, tied with in-store promotions, drive increased sales as consumers move their purchasing dollars from more familiar fresh produce commodities to the trendier offerings,” he says.

In tandem with this, chefs are incorporating more produce into their offerings on everything from QSR to white tablecloth menus. Thus, sweet potatoes and Chipotle peppers have seen triple-digit growth in penetration rates in foodservice between 2005 and 2016, according to Datassential statistics found in the Fresh-Cut/Value-Added Produce Marketing Trends presentation given by Roberta Cook, Ph.D., professor emerita and cooperative extension specialist at the University of California, Davis’ Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics. Cabbage, capers, red peppers, Romaine, celery, cucumbers and jalapeño peppers have increased more than 40 percent, while asparagus, carrots, scallions, green beans, corn and spinach have risen in use 20 to 37 percent.

“Consumers dine out and experience new produce items or familiar items prepared in new ways and want to try this at home,” says Kathy Means, vice president of industry relations for the Produce Marketing Association (PMA), Newark, DE.

On the industry side, sources for the article mention five intrinsic developments that took place and led to a huge impact on the volume growth of the Top 10 fruits and vegetables listed. These are produce characteristics like flavor and nutrients; broadened trade and greater availability; technology innovation such as varietal development and greenhouse cultivation; and advances in practices like ripening and packaging improvements. Key are how grower/shippers have capitalized on these opportunities, and their success offers clues as to how growers of all fruits and vegetables can move the needle on consumption.

Produce Characteristics

The health piece is huge when it comes to boosting produce sales, says Elizabeth Pivonka, president and chief executive of the Produce for Better Health Foundation (PBH), in Hockessin, DE. “Sweet potatoes and berries, for example, have a great nutrition story to tell.”

Beyond this is the affect of marketing of some fruits and vegetables as superfoods.

“All produce is healthy, so on its own that doesn’t seem to be a motivator. But call something a superfood and off it goes,” says PMA’s Means. A good example of this happened in the late 1990s when the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, ranked the sweet potato No. 1 in nutrients of all vegetables. The result is that per capita consumption rose 70 percent in the past two decades. Demand grew to year-round. In turn, marketing groups such as the North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission, in Benson, NC, touted expanded usage ideas.

“We’ve promoted sweet potatoes beyond a holiday dish with new recipe ideas such as mashed as a substitute for Russet potatoes, grilled in the summer, French fries in foodservice and even diced in ethnic dishes like burritos,” says Jason Stemm, vice president of New York-based public relations firm PadillaCRT.

Blueberry Consumption

In a 20-year span blueberry consumption grew by 599 percent.

Since 2005, commodity groups like the Folsom, CA-headquartered U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council have invested more than $4 million at two dozen research institutions to study the health benefits of blueberries. So far, 20 scientific papers have been published with results picked up by the consumer press.

“In 2013, Americans were nearly twice as likely as they were in 2004 to buy blueberries in the coming year; 84 percent cited awareness of blueberry health benefits, up 115 percent over 2004,” says Mark Villata, executive director of the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council.

Ways in which the Council has used this information include working with registered dietitians, including those who work in retail, to spread news of blueberries’ nutritional benefits to consumers via traditional and social media channels, as well as to their patients and clients. Dietitians are a group the Watsonville, CA-based California Strawberry Commission, too, has targeted with the creation of its 8-a-Day Retail RD Toolkit. Information includes store tour cheat sheets, strawberry nutrition facts, cooking demo scripts, recipe cards and a calendar of easy-to-execute ideas to plan in-store events.

“Consumers may choose produce for its nutrition, but they eat it for the taste,” says PBH’s Pivonka.

As a result, there’s continued flavor development on the grower side, says Jim Roberts, vice president of sales for Naturipe Farms LLC, in Naples, FL. “Five years ago there was little proprietary blueberry production. In the next five, everything will be proprietary and focused on flavor and quality, as well as yield.”

The Mushroom Council combined its extensive library of nutrition research, conducted during the five years in the early 2000s when a Supreme Court ruling shut down its checkoff advertising program, by working with chefs at the Culinary Institute of America to develop its blendability concept. The concept combines the umami flavor in mushrooms with a way to lower fat and cholesterol in beef-based dishes when the two are combined.

Health and nutrition — combined with flavor — will continue to be potent motivators of fruit and vegetable consumption. This means expanding to include the latest trends.

“Sustainability is now growing as a part of the health and nutrition concept,” says Kathleen Preis, marketing manager for the Redwood Shores, CA-based Mushroom Council.

“This fall, the food website Epicurious promoted recipes as sustainable. Not only does a blended burger have less calories and fat than all-beef burgers, it also uses less land, less water and creates less of a carbon footprint.”

Broadened Trade & Greater Availability

Increased production capabilities in overseas countries has meant more availability, less seasonality and year-round supply. A great example of this is asparagus, which has grown 200 percent in per capita consumption in the past 20 years. One big reason is imports from Peru.

“Many growers/packers and importers continue to upgrade their irrigation programs, certifications and packaging programs, as well as invest in training, technology, traceability and social responsibility to meet consumers’ needs with quality product,” says Priscilla Lleras-Bush, coordinator for the Peruvian Asparagus Importers Association. “Importers also work together with buyers, whether they are retailers and/or foodservice. For retailers, for example, importers provide solutions to sell more asparagus, whether it be packaging solutions with variety packs, asparagus tips, and green-and-white asparagus that equips retailers to create vibrant attractive displays.”

Lemon supply in the United States has benefited from Mexican imports from July to December, says Ronnie Cohen, vice president of sales for the Vision Import Group, in Hackensack, NJ. “Lemons have been grown in Mexico as a commercial crop for Coca-Cola for years, but the crop has shifted more to the fresh market with the decreased production out of California and Arizona. When Mexico is out of season, we import from Spain and Chile for year-round supply to our customers.”

To capitalize on greater availability and the latest consumer trends, Limoneira, a global agribusiness company headquartered in Santa Paula, CA, created its “Lemons for Life” campaign.

“This provides consumers with recipes and tips using lemons for beauty, green cleaning, nutrition and lifestyle applications,” says John Chamberlain, director of marketing. “Registered Dietitian Megan Roosevelt is the spokeswoman for the campaign and the founder of Healthy Grocery Girl. She has a large YouTube following and shares content on a weekly basis.”

Tropicals such as papayas and mangos have transitioned from specialty to mainstream and have grown by triple digits in consumption in the United States since 1994, due to increased imports. The main papaya suppliers to the U.S. market are Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Brazil and the Dominican Republic; for mangos it’s Mexico, Guatemala, Brazil, Haiti, Ecuador and Peru. There is virtually no commercial production of these two fruits in the United States.

“We have partnered with multiple spokespeople, sponsorships, social media outlets and influencers to raise mango awareness and education, and ultimately demystify this delicious superfruit with U.S. consumers,” says Angela Serna, communications manager for the National Mango Board, in Orlando, FL. “Through the years, the partnerships have included celebrities Tony Abou-Ganim, Ingrid Hoffmann, Aarti Sequeira, Clinton Kelly and Julie Johnston, who have generated more than 12 billion media impressions since 2006.”

“Weather patterns have shifted in recent years causing new patterns in volume and seasons for the mango exporting countries. In years to come, these patterns can help boost mango availability among consumers in the United States,”says Serna.

The other side of the coin, says Limoneira’s Chamberlain, “is matching the growing demand with an equal growing volume, with a special note that the growing volume has to be evenly spread over 52 weeks of the year.”

Innovations In Technology

Varietal development to create better-tasting products — and more of them — can translate into greater consumption, especially at a time when snacking is a hot trend. A good example is pineapple, which has grown from less than 2 pounds to nearly 7 pounds in per capita consumption in the past two decades.

“We helped to revolutionize the pineapple category with the introduction of the Del Monte Gold Extra Sweet Pineapple in the mid-1990s, a move credited for a 250 percent increase in fresh pineapple consumption in the United States,” says Dionysios Christou, vice president of marketing for Del Monte Fresh Produce, North America Inc., in Coral Gables, FL. “To help our partners increase sales, we align our whole and fresh-cut offerings with consumer trends, needs and shopping behaviors. For example, with the rise of the ‘on-the-go’ consumer, we have developed innovative packaging and expanded our pineapple line to include fresh-cut cylinders, chunks, rings and spears in a multitude of sizes. We also launched our new Del Monte Fresh Cut Grab-N-Go pineapple cups.”

Varietal development and greater snacking have also propelled pepper, cucumber and tomato intake by double digits. “New sweet mild red, yellow and orange bell peppers have evolved in the past 20 years,” says Mike Aiton, marketing director for Coachella, CA-based Prime Time International. “While there has been some cannibalization of green bells by the other colors, the opportunity to present retailers with a choice of twenty-some varieties, if you count the hot chilis too, is growing the entire category. Small, sweet mini peppers have especially witnessed incredible growth, even as a snack item by kids. We’ve seen retailers go from ordering six pallets when on ad to straight loads.”

Greenhouse-grown mini-cucumbers meet consumers’ demand for healthy hydration, flavor and portability, according to Doug Kling, senior vice president and chief marketing officer for Village Farms International, based in Heathrow, FL. Similarly, says Kling, tomatoes were only used for slicing, sauces and salads. Now, they are a huge snack item.

“Nielsen Perishables Group data for the 52 weeks ending July 2, 2016, shows snack-sized cherry tomatoes grew 63.5 percent in volume; specialties like our Mini San Marzano’s were up 19.4 percent and Campari’s up 8.8 percent, while tomato volume overall was up only 2 percent,” says Kling.

Consumers will continue to search for healthy, tasty, portable products to satisfy their snacking needs while on the go, says Del Monte’s Christou. “We foresee channels such as convenience stores continuing the push for fresh items as they re-engineer themselves into a fresh food destination for consumers. Fresh produce snacking items offer great opportunity to meet those needs.”

Advancements In Ripening Techniques

Avocados’ growth in per capita consumption has soared nearly 400 percent, from 1.3 pounds in 1994 to 6.1 pounds in 2014. This fruit is a prime example of an item that has benefited from pre-conditioning programs to reliably place ripe fruit at point-of-sale.

“The industry has invested in technology and infrastructure to deliver ripe fruit to consumers on a daily basis,” says Emiliano Escobedo, executive director of the Hass Avocado Board (HAB), based in Mission Viejo, CA. “Consistent year-round supply of ripe fruit equals increased sales and profitability due to customer satisfaction.”

Simply offering ripe fruit doesn’t guarantee customers will buy. This takes an aggressive outreach program, something HAB committed to when it invested nearly $500 million between 2002 and 2016.

“Advertising, promotion and public relations all have had a huge role in building the category,” says Jan DeLyser, vice president of marketing for the Irvine, CA-headquartered California Avocado Commission. “For example, nutrition research and education helped move consumer perception of avocados from a fattening food in the 1970s to a healthy one today. In fact, with the recent serving size change for avocados from one-fifth medium to one-third medium, the FDA now allows marketers to use the word ‘healthy’ when describing avocados. The fact that we couldn’t use ‘healthy’ for years — when some non-produce items could — was a challenge the industry overcame by disseminating all the good nutrition truths about the fruit. In addition, along with brand building, campaigns include messages about the versatility of avocados, advancing usage beyond just guacamole. Now more than 40 percent of avocado consumers in the West eat them at least weekly at both lunch and dinner; 31 percent eat them for snacks and 17 percent for breakfast.”

Going forward, the avocado industry’s challenge in the fresh fruit supply — predicted to surpass the 3 billion-pound mark in the United States in the next two years — will be to keep supply and demand in balance.

Packaging Improvements

Packaging innovations from bags to branding have driven double-digit increases in per capita consumption of Romaine and leaf lettuces, broccoli, and a triple-digit rise in dried fruits like dates, while other dried fruits’ intake has remained flat or decreased.

“Over the past two decades there has been significant growth in Romaine and leaf lettuces at the expense of Iceberg,” says Rick Antle, chief executive and president of Tanimura & Antle, in Salinas, CA. “As retailers began cross-merchandising Caesar dressing and croutons alongside the Romaine, consumers seized the opportunity to create their own signature salad. Packaged salads, specifically Caesar kits, allow consumers to experience restaurant-quality salads with the convenience of it all being in a single bag.”

“The fact that we couldn’t use ‘healthy’ for years — when some non-produce items could — was a challenge the industry overcame by disseminating all the good nutrition truths about the fruit.”

— Jan DeLyser, California Avocado Commission

Convenience packaging is something that will continue to resonate with tomorrow’s shoppers. “Millennials, like most of us, are into convenience and quality. Mann’s Broccoli Wokly fits the bill,” says Jacob Shafer, marketing and communication specialist with Mann Packing, in Salinas, CA. “All the veggies are washed and ready to cook, and versatile enough for multiple uses, such as in salads, stir-fries, soups and casseroles; and they are preservative-free and gluten-free. Our Broccoli Wokly product comes in a steam-in-bag package, making preparation a snap for consumers.”

Shelf-stable, resealable tubs that are easy to work with at retail and are convenient for customers is a packaging innovation that has stepped up the consumption of dates.

“Medjool dates are no longer just a holiday specialty,” says Erin Hanagan-Muths, director of marketing for Bard Valley Date Growers, in Yuma, AZ. “Shoppers now prize Medjool dates for their quality and flavor, and are consuming them daily as a health snack, especially among performance-oriented athletes, fitness enthusiasts and health-minded shoppers. We are just at the beginning of driving this shift in consumer behavior and expect this trend to continue for the foreseeable future.”

Branded produce accounts for a third of sales and has the fastest growth in produce, according to data supplied by the Nielsen Perishables Group. From 2011, branded produce has climbed from 28 to 36 percent in dollar share of produce. Looking at the five-year compounded annual growth rate, branded produce is up 12 percent while private label and unbranded grew 9 percent and 2 percent, respectively, during the same time.

Tangerines, especially Mandarin-hybrids like Clementines and W. Mercotts, have benefited from mega-branding campaigns that have grown per capita consumption from 2 to 4.8 pounds in the past 20 years.

“We were instrumental in pioneering the California Mandarin crop. Early on we developed the right growing and packing techniques to deliver on the promise of sweet, juicy, easy-to-peel and seedless,” says Bob DiPiazza, president of Sun Pacific Marketing, based in Pasadena, CA. “We improved our packaging over the years, added point-of-sale (POS) materials to support retail promotion and, along with our partners at the time, were the first brand to invest in a robust marketing plan that included a national television presence.”

This season, Delano, CA-headquartered Wonderful Citrus, grower/marketers of Halos brand Mandarins, invested a record $30 million in a new campaign that includes new television advertisements, digital, print, billboards, public relations, in-store POS and more. The campaign, which celebrates kids making healthy choices, launched Oct. 31. The company also has six free-standing inserts (FSTs) during its November to May season.

Increased consumption of tangerines, like Mandarins, has come at a cost. Per capita consumption of oranges plummeted from 12.5 to 9.1 pounds from 1994 to 2014. The challenge in the future for grower/marketers will be to grow overall consumption of citrus.

Future Opportunities

Looking forward, which food categories will be the fastest-growing? According to Nielsen Perishables Group, products with more than $50 million in sales and with the highest compound annual volume growth rate between 2011 and 2015 are, in descending order, teas (primarily Kombucha-based), kale, waters (coconut water makes up 96 percent of dollar sales in this sub-category),
completes/kits (salad greens with dressing and proteins), smoothies (especially greens and berry-flavored), sweet peppers (mainly minis), organic salads, honeycrisp apples, raspberries and value-added snacking vegetables — nine of the Top 10 snacking items in volume sales are either carrots or celery sticks and snack packs; and some include a dip.

Consumers are changing the way they eat, which is elevating the importance of fresh produce. According to Nielsen’s Global Health & Wellness Survey (2014), 50 percent of Americans are trying to lose weight. “One of the top methods is incorporating more fresh foods (59 percent) and less processed foods (45 percent). Produce categories that adapt to contemporary consumer demand are winning,” says Nielsen’s Campuzano.

Retailers’ Role In Increasing Consumption

Retailers play a crucial role in increasing the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables.

“It starts with sourcing high-quality great-tasting produce,” says Earl McGrath, director of produce operations at Freshfields Farm, a two-store independent with locations in Orlando and Jacksonville, FL. “This is what our customers look for. Price is like number eight down on their list. However, some retailers tend to focus too much on shelf life and longevity, and that can lead to sacrifices in these two key selling points, as well as sales.”

Keith Buscemi, vice president of produce for Eden Prairie, MN-based SuperValu, the fifth-largest food retailer in the United States, underscores the importance of the freshness factor. “Fresh produce has a finite shelf life, making it imperative that once the product is harvested, it gets on the store shelves as quickly as possible. To make this happen, many fresh produce shipments traveling to one of our distribution centers are sent via team truck drivers. By removing critical time out of the supply chain, a consumer can enjoy a fresher, more flavorful product.”

As for assortment, Buscemi adds, “Retailers work hard to identify consumption trends, which allow them to spotlight the fresh produce that can be incorporated into daily cuisine while providing new flavor experiences to meet consumers’ growing and evolving palates. For example, fresh-cut fruits and vegetables such as mango, pineapple and peppers resonate with consumers, as they are perfect for on-the-go snacking and cut down the preparation time of a meal.”

Promotion is a key piece to drive customers into the store and to the produce department, says Chad Miller, vice president of procurement at Sprouts Farmers Market, a Phoenix-based chain with more than 250 stores in 13 states nationwide. “Once they get there, it’s all about customer service to convey the attributes of fresh produce, including the nutrient and health benefits.”

Buscemi agrees and says in-store education at SuperValu is accomplished through a variety of methods, from highlighting new or local offerings with in-store signage, to performing in-store demonstrations and tastings.

“The education retailers provide to their employees also helps increase fresh produce consumption. For example, trained field merchandisers in our wholesale regions continually train and educate our wholesale customers. We also educate associates at retail banners on the produce they stock every day. When armed with a greater understanding of the product on the shelves, employees feel comfortable interacting with curious consumers. These conversations help create store loyalty and feedback about what consumers are looking for from their fresh produce department,” says Buscemi.

Voices of Experience – Recommendations For Success

What about fruits and vegetables that are flat or declining in per capita consumption? How can grower/shippers of these items give their produce a boost? Here is a sampling of recommendations from industry professionals who have experienced success with their products:

“It starts with quality and taste; packaging that differentiates is certainly a plus, but if consumers don’t easily find the item in the produce department, don’t expect growth. Create excitement around your product and do something different with the product that captures the retailer’s and the consumer’s attention and in turn gets your product improved visibility in the department and more frequent sales promotion.”

— Bob DiPiazza, president,
Sun Pacific Marketing

“First, understand your consumers and learn why consumption of the fruit or vegetable is flat or declining. Second, talk to your trade customers and learn from them. From that knowledge base, you can identify opportunities. Do you need to introduce the fruit or vegetable to new, possibly younger consumers? Are there untapped product usages that you can promote? Are there health benefits with the product that consumers are not aware of? Can your product add value for chefs and foodservice operators? Can you change your marketing mix to help retailers? How can you leverage your brand advocates? Every product is different, but fruits and vegetables have near-magical opportunity for growth.”

— Jan DeLyser, vice president of marketing, California Avocado Commission

“From a marketing perspective, we always keep a focus on connecting our product to our customers’ needs. We work hard to promote blueberries to the right customers at the right place and time, and in a context that speaks to their needs. These needs may differ from one group of customers to the next, so promotions must consider the many cultural, social, personal and psychological factors impacting purchase decisions. Consumers are drawn to produce items that help them lead their desired lifestyle.”

— Mark Villata, executive director,
U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council

“Developing useful-yet-fun content targeted to audiences is a big plus.Mobile continues to grow, especially with Millennials, so content needs to be targeted to where people are (not just at desktops). Developing an ambassador program that can help spread the word about your products is also really helpful.”

— John Chamberlain, director of marketing, Limoneira

“Our research programs have allowed us the opportunity to share new results to both the industry and consumer media. Having relevant content to stay top of mind has helped mango to continue to grow in popularity.”

— Angela Serna, communications manager, National Mango Board

“In 1982, Iceberg lettuce was 86 percent of our lettuce sales; today it is 34 percent. In the 1940s, the Southern Pacific railroad defined itself as a railroad. Had they thought of themselves as a transportation company, you would be flying Southern Pacific.”

— Rick Antle, chief executive and president,
Tanimura & Antle