The difference between the winter doldrums or a winter boom in produce sales is impactful merchandising.
Originally printed in the November 2023 issue of Produce Business.
Winter merchandising is imperative to gain and keep the produce dollar throughout the December through March period.
“In winter, you can create fun and excitement,” says Mark Côté, regional produce supervisor at Redner’s Markets in Reading, PA, operating 44 stores. “During this time, shoppers embrace something creative and exciting. It’s important to engage customers.
“Right now, there are very few shoppers who are loyal to one store. Everyone is fighting for the customers because they are really shopping around,” he says.
As the world transitions to having full-line crops year-round, it is essential to focus on traditional winter vegetables, explains Patrick Mills, director of produce and floral at Bashas’ Family of Stores in Chandler, AZ, with 118 stores.
“Contests, holiday-themed displays, winter squashes and pumpkin fun all give the produce department a lift,” he says.
CURE WINTER BLAHS
Retail has several good reasons to put extra focus on produce in the winter. “Firstly, consumers continue to seek fresh and healthy options even in the colder months, and produce meets those needs,” says Matt Hiltner, marketing coordinator at Babé Farms in Santa Maria, CA.
“Additionally, winter is a time when many make New Year’s resolutions to eat healthier. Boosting the produce department during winter can indeed increase sales.”
Brian Dey, senior merchandiser and natural stores coordinator for Four Seasons Produce in Ephrata, PA, notes opportunity, since many seasonal commodities are hitting the shelves and offer a chance for creative and colorful merchandising.
“Citrus, apples, pear, and hard squashes are all in play and offer natural vibrancy for counters and displays,” he says. “The key piece is how to capture the eye, right? That’s where creative merchandising comes in, as well as strategic ad and promotional planning. Offering a great variety of not only product but also pack sizes will maximize sales and profits of a wintertime sales plan.”
Creating a winning winter game plan is four-fold, according to Hiltner: seasonal variety, promotions, educational marketing, and visual appeal.
“Stores should offer a diverse selection of winter produce items, such as root vegetables and hearty greens,” he says. “Run promotions, cross-merchandise, and bundle winter produce items to attract customers looking for value. Provide cooking tips, recipes, and in-store demos that highlight winter produce to inspire shoppers. And, ensure produce displays are visually appealing with vibrant colors, well-organized sections, and fresh signage.”
ADD VARIETY AND INTEREST
Winter provides ample opportunity to highlight unique items during major holiday periods.
“The big hitters of potatoes, hard squashes, apples and citrus all play a key factor in the winter business,” says Bashas’ Mills. “I have had fun with apple season, trying hard to offer new varieties, teach customers about them and sample, sample, sample. Root vegetables and poms or figs can be smaller special displays. All decisions are based on sales and demand.”
Sam Marrogy, produce director at Harbortown Market, an upscale retailer in Detroit, MI, believes providing variety in the winter is elemental.
“I focus a lot on apples in the winter because there are many different varieties and source locations,” Marrogy says. “We also cross-merchandise with other apple products, such as apple cider. For winter cooking holidays, we do a selection of sweet potatoes and other root vegetables, including fresh beets.”
Stores can take advantage of the season to emphasize the use of fresh produce in traditional holiday dishes, suggests Bryan Shelton, vice president of sales and marketing at Giorgio Fresh in Blandon, PA.
“For example, mushrooms offer a straightforward way to put a nutritious twist into classic holiday fare,” he says. “This potentially motivates shoppers to make healthier choices and increase their purchases in the fresh department.”
Convenience products offer additional opportunities for promotion. “We offer holiday hosts the convenience and value of baby and cut carrots to save time in all courses of holiday meals,” says Bob Borda, vice president of Cal-Organic sales for Grimmway Farms/Cal-Organic Farms in Bakersfield, CA.
Harbortown shoppers seek convenience. “We make vegetable trays with a mix of vegetables for grab-n-go,” says Marrogy. “It’s very popular. What we make one day will be sold out the next.”
Stores can also capitalize on the unofficial diet season immediately following the new year. “Following the holiday season, consumers are looking to kick-start the new year with a focus on health,” says Shelton. “A notable trend we have seen is the mushroom blend, where consumers replace a portion of their protein, such as beef, with fresh mushrooms.”
EXPAND HOLIDAY OPTIONS
Major holidays for promotion start in December and go all the way through St. Patrick’s Day. “Winter has major holidays, but also captures a lot of sporting events,” says Dey of Four Seasons. “Mixed nuts for holiday parties, and peanuts and pistachios for game day are items to have ready to roll in your departments. These are high-dollar, no-shrink rings and a great impulse sale.”
For Valentine’s Day, Bashas’ offers a great floral department along with a dipped strawberry event. “Sales are huge when you combine the floral and strawberries and make it an event with all the trimmings,” says Mills. “During Super Bowl, we push for sales and excitement, including display contests, raffles, sample offerings and great ad items, to really get a jump on the big game.”
The New York Apple Association (NYAA) in Fishers, NY, will celebrate Valentine’s and Galentine’s Day with an Apples and Chocolate Consumer Sweepstakes in February. “Cross-merchandising chocolate melting wafers, New York apples and apple slicers are great for giving consumers new ideas on how to enjoy New York apples,” says Cynthia Haskins, president and chief executive.
Stores are encouraged to look at additional holidays such as Chinese/Lunar New Year. “The Year of The Dragon is a great event to promote citrus and drive the category, since citrus is an essential item in celebrations and often gifted to loved ones and friends during the festival,” says Cassie Howard, senior director of category management and marketing at Sunkist Growers in Valencia, CA.
“With custom illustrations, Sunkist’s Year of the Dragon cartons and display bins feature an authentic Chinese design, printed with a focus on red and gold colors. The cartons hold either navel or Cara Cara oranges, and the display bins can hold any variety.”
Hiltner of Babé Farms suggests stores stock up on items essential to Asian cuisine at this time. “Due to Chinese/Lunar New Year, we regularly increase plantings on our baby bok choy for this time of year due to the high demand we consistently see,” he says.
CREATE THE ATMOSPHERE
Avoiding winter doldrums means generating excitement. “Create an atmosphere of theater,” says Dey.“ One of my favorites we continue to do every year is creating a Christmas tree constructed of broccoli, decorated with peppers, radishes and apples. It’s a super cool promotion because it is seasonal to the holidays and adds a lot of fun and creativity to a department. It creates a ton of picture and selfie opportunities for customers and is something completely out of the normal. Customers head to the store for their shopping trip and leave the department having a shopping experience.”
Four Seasons normally does several holiday promotions and display contests. “Last year, we did a SugarBee Apple display contest,” says Dey. “At one display in Ithaca, NY, we brought in actual empty bee hives, sold local honey, had SugarBee holiday gift boxes and had beekeepers handing out samples of SugarBee apples while giving away little stuffed bees to kids. This type of theater adds a different level of excitement and goes a long way for customer loyalty.”
Creating citrus destinations or merchandising takeovers through multiple POS materials and display bins are excellent ways to make an impressionable impact on consumers as they enter the produce aisle and capture their attention, explains Howard.
“These tools also provide additional educational touch points to encourage consumption,” she says. “Having big displays showcasing different specialty options is a great way to highlight fruit attributes, flavor profiles, and nutritious offerings — all key purchase motivators that’ll help spark consumer interest and persuade them to potentially try something new.”
Themed displays bring excitement to produce, agrees Haskins. “Consumers are trained to see groupings of similar products together and are drawn to displays that greet them as they enter the store or department. Help consumers make gift-giving easy by cross-merchandising New York apples side-by-side with baskets, ribbons, cards, and delectable treats.”
NYAA also recommends cross-merchandising with everything about baking and will feature its consumer pie-kit giveaway, including a pie dish, apple slicer, gift box of New York apples and apple pie recipes during the holidays this year, she says.
Stores are cautioned to prioritize and edit given the space allocation. “Plan displays well,” says Redner’s Côté. “Don’t overdo it with items or signage, because it will discourage the shopper. We spend labor and time on putting displays together, so we want to get results. The display must make sense to the shopper and make them easily pick up what you’re promoting.”
SHOWCASE THE UNEXPECTED
Stores can bolster shopper interest with unique items. “Retailers can capture shoppers’ hunt for something new,” says Borda of Grimmway. “This means, while not ignoring the stews and casseroles that traditionally grace holiday meals, still incorporating new flavors and fresh vegetables once considered out of season during the winter.”
Borda explains, for instance, featuring fresh spinach, typically associated with spring, for a winter salad topped with almonds and dried cranberries.
“For stews and soups featuring carrots, potatoes and onions, suggest the addition of kale, chard, and Brussels sprouts for additional flavor and color,” he says. “Other products such as peppers, from jalapenos to habanero, and fresh herbs can be promoted to bring delicious heat and flavors to familiar dishes.”
Root vegetables can be used to attract attention through color. “Most root veggies can turn a produce section into a stunning visual feast,” says Hiltner. “Vibrant root vegetables such as baby beets, rainbow carrots, and specialty radishes should always be front and center on the produce wet rack.”
Hiltner also recommends unique products such as celery root. “Because of its rough and snaggly appearance, celery root can intimidate consumers,” he says. “Retailers can facilitate purchase by providing visual aids. Hold cooking demos in-store so customers can see, smell and taste cooked celery root for themselves.”
POS, digital marketing and social media are crucial tools to communicate with shoppers during winter months.
“Retailers are increasingly savvy communicating with their customers and digitally mining loyalty data to target fresh vegetable promotions,” says Borda. “Retailers must understand who their customers are to effectively merchandise and market to them.”
NYAA supports participating retailers with geo-targeting social media ads to bring attention to specific apple varieties and customize promotions. “This year’s marketing strategy includes sponsoring digital coupons and social media ads proven to move apple volume,” says Haskins. NYAA is seeing an increase in digital couponing, especially among the under 40 crowd.
The association also has an extensive asset library that provides recipes, videos, and apple flavor profiles that can bring eye-catching content to retailer partners’ websites, newsletters, blogs and in-store signage, Haskins adds.
Redner’s uses a store circular to appeal to shoppers at walk in and sends out a digital one each week. “We have a nutritionist who provides articles and blogs online,” says Côte. “Her social media activity helps drive customers to the produce department, especially younger shoppers.”
Availability of recipes and usage information remains vital to sales. “According to a recent Sunkist-commissioned study, when asked what advertisements incentivize consumers to buy citrus, over 50% prioritized recipe inspiration, followed by utilization tips at 30%,” says Howard. “We’ve also learned that Facebook, recipe websites, and blogs are the main channels inspiring shopping lists among almost half of respondents.”
Giorgio offers seasonal cookbooks on its website, providing consumers with inspiration. “Retailers can offer similar digital and in-store options to encourage use of fresh ingredients throughout winter by creating recipes with winter produce and providing coupons and in-store demos,” says Shelton.
Sunkist offers interactive point-of-sale (POS) materials featuring scannable QR codes connecting directly to recipes. “Our digital shopper marketing programs and social media campaigns aim to provide consumers with easy, at-home recipe ideas and fun ways for families to get kids involved,” says Howard.