A passion for produce

Ron Lemaire, the new president of the Canadian Produce Marketing Association, wants to help you sell more fruit and veggies

Driving to meet Ron Lemaire, the new president of the Canadian Produce Marketing Association, I run across several sterling examples of retailers selling fruit and veggies. A few blocks from Lemaire's office, in suburban Ottawa, I visit a Farm Boy brimming with fresh oranges, greens of all sorts and Pink Lady apples. Over an end-aisle display of bananas, a stuffed monkey swings from a motorized vine. Though it's only Monday, the store is humming with customers.

Across the street, inside a nicely merchandised Metro store, a long wall of single-serve salads in plastic dishes beckons the lunchtime crowd. One after the other, office workers parade by, pick a salad, a plastic fork and linger over which of more than a dozen individualsized pouches of dressing to choose from. Take that, McDonald's!

Then, just around the corner from Lemaire's office, I find a roadside sign advertising fresh blueberries. A farmer's market, perhaps? Uhuh. It's a Canadian Tire and a blueberry stand has been set up right in the parking lot. Yes, it seems produce is everywhere these days. But Lemaire isn't exactly worried his job, to promote produce and help growers, retailers and suppliers sell more, is taken care of.

Five months into being president, Lemaire is a busy guy with lots on his plate, so to speak. Key industry issues include safety and traceability, dispelling the perception that produce costs a lot, and improving industry education and resources. Getting consumers to eat more produce is another major one. Busy moms and dads, after all, often find ordering a pizza is easier than chopping up broccoli.

But Lemaire believes there is a H-U-G-E opportunity to make produce a bigger category. With more people worried about health, produce has a big role to play. Meanwhile, ethnic Canadians are making produce the centre of the meal, rather than a side dish. "Produce is already such a significant part of our industry, but it can still be more. We can't just sit on the fact that it's fundamental to driving our business. We have to look at how it can drive it even further," he says.

If Lemaire's face is familiar, it's because he's not new to CPMA. He spent 10 years with the association, starting in 1998, as executive vice-president. He left to become VP of marketing development at the Canada Green Building Council, a group that oversees the environmentally friendly building designation LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). When CPMA's longtime president, Dan Dempster, announced his retirement, Lemaire was the perfect guy to take over. "Produce is not an eight-to-four job. You have to live, eat and breathe it. And Ron has that enthusiasm for the business," says Tom Byttynen, CPMA's chairman and president of Thomas Fresh Inc. in Calgary.

Lemaire, a 43-year-old hockey dad, takes over an association that is in remarkably good shape. Recently, CPMA asked its members, government and other organizations it works closely with whether they are satisfied with the association's work. Ninety per cent said yes. Meanwhile, Trade Show Executive magazine identified CPMA's annual show as one of the fastest growing worldwide. Net square footage at the 2010 Vancouver show was up 29 per cent over the previous year and next April's event in Calgary is already sold out. (CPMA says it's adding more space to accommodate demand.)

Yet Lemaire, whose work background also includes a marketing job with the Montreal Expos Tripe-A farm team, the Ottawa Lynx, is looking ahead. He's in the midst of a strategic review of CPMA to ensure the association is addressing issues before they become a problem. By its very nature, the produce industry is complex, he explains. The more the association can do to simplify it, through best practices, streamlining red tape and taking costs out of the system, the better able growers, suppliers and retailers will be able to deliver fruit and vegetables to consumers efficiently and at affordable prices.

This is past May, for instance, CPMA worked with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to introduce a fee for inspection service. It ensures retailers can have product inspected in a timely manner. Previously, produce that required an inspector on a weekend might not have gotten looked at until the Monday, which isn't exactly ideal when the product in question has a short shelf life.

At the retailer end of the supply chain, human resources is a priority. Selling produce requires knowledgeable workers, says Lemaire. Today, many staff work part-time and don't know as much about produce as perhaps they ought to. "We're almost back to re-educating the majority of the workforce. You know, don't put your apples beside your bananas. They're both going to ripen more quickly. Or, how do you ripen an avocado? Put
it in a paper bag. All of these little tricks how you store and handle and eat produce that were being lost are being reintroduced." Lemaire would like to see more training and says the CPMA might get involved, either through a greater sharing of best training practices or even by o ering the training itself.

Lack of knowledge on the store floor is a common industry complaint, says Jim Prevor, author of a blog called the Perishable Pundit, who has worked in and written about the produce industry for decades. "In the old days a produce manager might have had time to interact with customers," he says. Today, the job is more complicated, and besides, the SKU count in produce has zoomed, making it tougher to know all about every fruit and vegetable a store carries. Prevor says retailers simply aren't putting much emphasis on knowledge in the produce department. But they should.

Staff know-how dovetails into two important and linked ideas about the produce section of a grocery store. The first is that produce is the most important section of a supermarket. ("It defines the store. You may not realize it until after you leave, but a good produce section is the reason you come back to that store," says Lemaire.)

The second is growing consumer interest in fruit and vegetables. Lemaire cites three groups in particular: Generation Y, which he says is keen to do more cooking; Canada's fast-growing South Asian and Chinese consumer base, who use vegetables as a main ingredient in many dishes; and aging boomers and Gen Xers, who are figuring out that getting medicine in food is better than from a bottle. "There is a huge opportunity here to grow the pie and sell more produce," he says.

Recent data suggests Canadians could stand to eat some extra fruit and veggies. Statistics Canada reported in June that the number of Canadians eating the recommended five servings of fruit and vegetables a day fell for the first time in a decade last year, to 43 per cent from 46 per cent. Rising produce prices may have been one contributor. Another could be that with higher gas prices people are doing one big grocery shop a week, rather than a few smaller ones. The result: they buy more packaged goods than fresh.

Around the same time of the StatsCan report, a study by the Canadian Institute for Health Information said obesity costs Canada's economy $7 billion a year. Getting those who eat almost no fruit and veggies up to the minimum five servings a day could result in 362,000 fewer obese people, says CIHI spokesperson Jennie Hoekstra.

Lemaire would like to see a bigger push on the health–produce link. What would be the effect, he surmises, of a government ad campaign encouraging greater produce consumption? "No one has ever seen a commercial from the federal government saying eat more fruit and vegetables...that it would be the most effective way to reduce your risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes."

He may be on to something. Similar awareness campaigns radically changed consumer behaviour. Consider the famous Participaction TV ad of the early 1970s ("the average 30-yearold Canadian is in the same physical shape as a 60-year-old Swede"). That one got an entire generation off the couch. "Eat more Produce" TV ads could be coupled with in-store marketing. A recent study done by Britain's Cambridge University had grocers put yellow duct tape along the width of the grocery cart. A sign in the cart reminded shoppers that half of their shopping cart (or to the yellow line) should be filled with produce. The results: fruit and vegetable purchases doubled. Lemaire says there is no one magic bullet to grow produce sales. Rather, "it's a lot of little things, from walking into the produce department and seeing all the vibrant colours and smells to having someone there who can tell you how to handle the product, store it and prepare it. "And if I spend my money on that product and it rots in the fridge, it reduces the chance I'll make a second purchase." In other words, growers, suppliers and retailers must work together, from one end of the supply chain to the other. That's where CPMA fits in.

Lemaire, meanwhile, is pumped at what he's seen in the produce aisles. New formats, such as Sobeys' FreshCo banner, emphasize produce. And more in-store cooking schools, demonstrations and nutrition education are all good for selling more fruit and vegetables.

In the meantime, suppliers are introducing convenient product formats for on-the-go shoppers, as witnessed by the lunch-size salads at the Metro store near Lemaire's office. And new technology, such as atmospheric packaging, is giving produce a longer shelf life, which should help out those once-a-week shoppers. It's all good for grocers, growers and suppliers. Maybe even a certain retailer that, while you're in getting a tire rotation, wishes you'd pick up a quart of blueberries, too.

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