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Appearance is everything

New research confirms that with produce, looks trumps price

At Pusateri's Fine Foods, produce is more than just a department, it’s “mission critical,” says vice-president of merchandising and marketing Angus McOuat.

The operation starts daily at 3:30 a.m. when a Pusateri’s buyer selects fruits and vegetables from the Ontario Food Terminal, which are then delivered and displayed at the grocery chain’s six stores across the Greater Toronto Area. Two of its stores also have a produce butcher on staff who washes, slices and prepares items upon customer request.

Like many grocers today, Pusateri’s is paying extra attention to its produce department as a way to not only lure customers, but also inspire them to add more items to their baskets.

“We see produce as a leading indicator for the rest of the store,” says McOuat. “As soon as we get people to buy into produce, then all of sudden they’re thinking about items such as meat and bread.”

The produce department is considered the most important section of the grocery store with a 99% household penetration, according to Food Marketing Institute’s (FMI) The Power of Produce 2017 report. The new research reveals 86% of consumers make unplanned fruit and vegetable purchases, making it a high-impulse category. And 58% of shoppers are enticed by eye-catching displays. When making a purchasing decision, appearance “easily” ranks ahead of price, the report shows.

“When it comes to produce, the eyes decide,” says Rick Stein, vice-president, fresh foods, at FMI. “You can have the best ads, but if you don’t have the people taking good care of the department— culling, straightening and merchandising in a tasteful way—you’re going to negate those ads.”

The report also shows about half of shoppers purchase the same items each time they visit the produce section, but that 83% would be open to trying new fruits and vegetables if they had more information on their nutritional value and how to prepare them.

“Consumers are thirsty for information—the more you can provide that, the more they will increase their consumption,” Stein explains. “It’s already a very mature category, so increasing consumption is key.”

It’s why more retailers are adding roles such as a produce butcher, for example, as a value-added service for shoppers. “It adds convenience a knowledgeable person into the department who can talk about the products,” says Stein. “And it’s creating a bit of theatre and excitement in the produce aisle.”

Research from the Canadian Produce Marketing Association (CPMA) shows about three-quarters of consumers are regularly buying a fruit or vegetable today that they weren’t five years ago, such as bokchoy and kale.

Sue Lewis, CPMA’s director of market development, says members regularly educate store produce managers about new products and changes to existing ones, which enables them to, in turn, inform consumers about what they’re buying. Along with produce butchers, some grocers are bringing in dietitians and offering cooking classes to help improve the customer experience. “The strategy can be very successful,” she says.

While supermarkets have a strong-hold on produce sales, FMI says more shoppers, in particular the powerful millennial market, are attracted to alternative channels such as farmer’s markets. They’re also looking for organic and locally grown food, which means traditional grocers need to offer similar products and service.

McOuat says Pusateri’s produce aisle is focused on appearance and storytelling to drive sales, as well as to build consumer confidence in the overall brand. “It presents a halo over the whole store,” McOuat says of the produce department. “If shoppers see the attention we put into the quality of our produce, in terms of selection and display, they’ll have that sense of trust over everything else we sell.”

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