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Selling imperfect produce is a perfect plan

Loblaw is the latest grocer to make misshapen produce available to consumers

A new Loblaw line that puts disfigured produce on a pedestal has been getting a lot of buzz since its launch last week.

Appropriately named "No Name Naturally Imperfect," the line of fruits and vegetables is just as nutritious and tasty as its perfect counterparts, it's just smaller and may have an unusual shape. The line is now available at Real Canadian Superstore and some No Frill locations in Ontario, as well as some Maxi stores in Quebec. It's being sold at a discount of up to 30 per cent compared to "traditional produce options found in store," according to Loblaw.

Loblaw isn't the first company to make misshapen produce available to consumers. In my "Taking Stock" column in the March/April issue of Canadian Grocer (out this week), I wrote about other retailers (and a grower/shipper) that have launched programs that celebrate the goodness of "ugly" produce.

Sometimes the simplest ideas are the most brilliant. And it doesn’t hurt that, quite often, they are also the most profitable, too. Ever worn a Snuggie? (I won’t judge; I have a blue one with a cloud motif.) The idea to add sleeves to a fleece blanket could not be more straightforward. Throw an infomercial and countless online parodies into the mix and voilà–more than 30 million Snuggies have been sold since 2008.

It’s not just products, either. Simple service ideas have become huge hits. Take 1-800-Got-Junk, the brainchild of Vancouver native Brian Scudamore. Is picking up and disposing of people’s trash a complex idea? Not even close. But the company made about $150 million in revenue last year, and 1-800-Got-Junk has spawned many imitators.

The grocery industry also has its share of clever, simple ideas. Putting doors on coolers to reduce in-store energy costs, and extending hours to better serve customers, are no-brainers. But they’ve had meaningful and positive effects. So too has another simple idea gaining momentum: selling misshapen produce instead of throwing it out.

The most famous example of selling “ugly” fruit (the one that likely popped up in your Facebook feed this past summer) comes from the French supermarket Intermarché. Last year, Intermarché launched a marketing campaign called “Inglorious Fruits & Vegetables.” The aim was to combat food waste by changing the way shoppers look at imperfect fruit and veggies. (It also priced the disfigured produce 30% cheaper.) The strategy worked: Intermarché sold an average of 1.2 tonnes of the disfigured produce per store during the first two days of the campaign. It also saw a 24% increase in store traffic.

More recently, Walmart’s British subsidiary, Asda, started a campaign to sell “wonky” fruit and vegetables at a discounted price to help reduce food waste. Asda’s produce technical director, Ian Harrison, wrote in a blog post in February that the campaign also supports farmers and offers customers additional value for their money.

The idea of selling fruit and vegetables with odd shapes or skin defects (yet still with the same quality and taste as their picture-perfect counterparts) has also been picked up in Canada. Greenhouse vegetable grower and shipper Red Hat Co-operative, in Redcliff, Alta., for example, started bagging its misshapen vegetables and selling them at Safeway and Co-op stores last year. “They’re vegetables that have been overlooked,” says Red Hat key account manager, Mike Meinhardt, “and now we’re making them the hero.”

That notion comes across in marketing for the program, called “Misfits.” Meinhardt went with a movie-poster theme in which underdog fruit and vegetables overcome adversity. An in-store sign (photo) stars zero-to-hero produce such as “Clint Cucumber” and “Jean Claude Bell Pepper” and a movie title: “The Misfits: Rise of the Rejects!”

A greenhouse tour last year got Meinhardt thinking about the fate of irregular, utility-grade produce, which often goes to waste. Beefsteak tomatoes had been sorted into bins based on whether they were choice, Grade A product or utility grade (and therefore wouldn’t get shipped). The latter were perfectly edible, but kinda ugly.

Soon after the tour, Meinhardt heard about the Intermarché campaign from France. It inspired him to get the Misfits program into motion. “I just thought, We could have a lot of fun with this and we might be able to do a lot of good.”

For starters, the program would help Red Hat Co-op’s growers to sell more. One of them told Meinhardt that 3% to 5% of what he grows is utility-grade product, and about 0.5% to 1% ends up in a landfill. “If we can take a half a per cent of the product that used to be a cost centre for them for dumping, and stream it into a revenue centre that they’re able to sell, that helps,” says Meinhardt.

The Misfits program also gets consumers thinking about food waste. After a winter hiatus, the program returns in April. Beyond Calgary-area Safeway and Co-op stores, Misfits is heading south of the border, where Robinson Fresh will distribute local U.S. produce branded as Misfits to retailers. It’s ideas like this that improve the grocery industry one step at a time. It’s as simple as that.

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