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The art of the olive bar

Great presentation and customer education are keys to selling more olives

Two food trends are coming together in grocery stores across North America: the healthful Mediterranean diet, which has been touted for years; and eating by snacking. Olive bars meet the needs of both trends. No wonder that olive bars are almost ubiquitous in supermarkets these days.

“Olive sales are strong,” says Greg Foreman, deli manager at Fresh Street Market, which opened in January in West Vancouver and features an extensive olive bar.

But the supermarket didn’t wait for the olives to sell themselves. “We had someone standing at the olive bar providing information, giving tasters and even getting people who weren’t olive lovers tasting them,” Foreman says. “Olives needed that push, and having someone there with that knowledge really helped.”

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The human touch is vital, says Gino Marghella, store manager at The Italian Centre, a two-store supermarket in Edmonton that sells around 50 types of olives from a counter. “It’s about the experience of waiting in a line; everybody eats with their eyes when they see that selection. Our biggest thing is giving samples. And we talk to them when they ask questions.”

Among the most frequent questions customers ask Marghella: Why aren’t the olive prices marked? His answer: “We want them to ask. That gets the conversation started. We don’t have a olive bar because we want to serve you, and get your story and tell you ours. We like to connect with customers.”

Education and information are crucial for strong olive sales, in fact. “Like many categories that are specialty in nature, consumers need to be made aware of the options available,” says Neil Stern, senior partner with McMillan Doolittle, a retail-consulting firm in Chicago. “It will create a spike in sales.” And consumers are ready to embrace olives. According to NPD Group, 10% eat them.

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Grocers with olive bars employ several strategies to grow sales. United Supermarkets in Lubbock, Texas, has a “sales champion” in its deli at peak times “who is there to help sell the department,” says Diane Earl, United’s senior director of prepared foods.

United carries a base program of olives, supplemented with some anti-pasto salads and a couple of house-made salads (such as pitted kalamatas and green grapes with walnuts, French- style seasoning and herbs), “to keep the bars interesting,” Earl explains.

A generous selection of olives is important because variety drives the olive category, says Melissa Abbott, senior director of culinary insights at the Hartman Group in Bellevue, Wash.

“The draw of the olive bar is customization and variety,” Abbott explains. “Consumers remark on being able to buy as much as they like, experiment with new flavours and use as an ingredient for the meal assembly taking place in the majority of homes .” Olive bars also allow shoppers to quickly craft impressive cheese plates.

Variety was one of two things responsible for a 21% increase in olive sales last year at Longo’s in Toronto. The second was adding low-sodium olives to olive bars, says Carlo Fantin, category manager of foodservice.

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The low-sodium olives, which are around 5% sodium, or about half of most olives, “are filling a void,” Fantin explains. They’re designated with a sign and appeal to olive lovers. “Overall most people eat olives because they think they’re healthy. Lower sodium will increase their interest and knowledge.”

Each Longo’s carries around 20 types of olives, and the selection varies regularly. Fantin says it is especially beneficial to change up the olive selection with the seasons or holidays. “It’s about just fooling around with the whole olive category.”

Offering education and a good selection makes olives almost irresistible. And if retailers offer multiple container sizes–including a popular four-compartment box that several grocery stores carry–their stores could soon become the second-best alternative to visiting the Mediterranean itself.

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