Leveraging the year of fruits and vegetables

Leveraging the year of fruits and vegetables

As the calendar turns to a new year and hopefully as the tide is turning against the pandemic there is hope that life will return to a sense of normalcy. Indeed, there is much to look forward to, not the least of which is a continued higher demand for fresh fruits and vegetables.

Every year in January we know that consumers make a concerted effort to eat healthy, whether it is part of a new year’s resolution, or just trying to shed some holiday pounds.

Retailers try to capitalize on the annual attempt to change eating habits – albeit for a short period of time, in many cases.

But in 2021, there is an additional tailwind for fresh produce marketers and retailers.

It might be hard to imagine sustaining and building on the nine-month trend of double-digit dollar and volume growth that the industry has seen amid the pandemic, but the United Nations General Assembly may have provided the opportunity to just that by declaring 2021 as the International Year of Fruit and Vegetables (IYFV).

A statement from the International Society for Horticultural Science says this: “The IYFV 2021 is a unique opportunity to raise awareness on the important role of fruits and vegetables in human nutrition, food security and health and as well in achieving UN Sustainable Development Goals.”

So what does this mean for retailers? How does a global initiative filter down to the operational level at retail to make an impact on consumers? After all, a lot of the language in the initiative is regarding advocacy, policy, access and technology.

However, it also includes promotion, consumption, awareness and education – all things that retailers are already thinking about and working into their plans for 2021. The IYFV angle can be a boost to those existing goals.

Fresh produce has a nearly 100% household penetration, according to FMI’s annual Power of Produce report, which means almost every consumer buys fresh fruits and vegetables. Generally, however, many consumers have the same list of fresh produce items on their shopping list each week.

This is where the merchant aspect of every retailer comes into play. We have all heard the phrase, “You can sell something once …” but how to achieve repeat purchases is the Holy Grail of fresh produce merchandising, whether in-store or online.

Consider this

Many consumers have a much different mindset entering 2021 than they did entering 2020, according to the Produce Marketing Association’s 2021 Environmental Scan, a consumer survey.

Channel shifting combined with new shopping behaviors have opened opportunities for products that support new consumer routines and lifestyles. Shoppers’ baskets are now dominated by items related to health, working, and learning from home, and social distancing.

Produce and floral marketers should promote attributes that resonate with consumers by connecting them to those topics and activities.

They should develop clear and impactful positioning for their products in light of the current environment, and they should tailor different messages for different channels.

Shoppers are making fewer trips and spending less time in stores is part of the next new normal, pushing grocers to develop new methods of increasing basket size, introducing shoppers to new products and sparking impulse purchases.

Not surprisingly, these changing shopper dynamics are creating new challenges for retailers in terms of labor availability, health and safety requirements, training and in-store execution.

To maintain consumer loyalty, stores and brands will need to seek new ways to enhance the customer experience. As adoption of the food-as-a-service model grows, produce can deepen its cultural and emotional connection with consumers through monthly subscriptions of specialty produce or quick, prep-free produce kits.

The food-as-a-service model may also help move personal grocery shopper jobs from being viewed as menial labor to devoted workers with specialized knowledge and experience who help meet families’ specific food needs.

Four ways to achieve success in 2021, the year of fruits and vegetables

Promotion – Retailers should strongly consider how and what they promote both in store and digitally to increase engagement with consumers.

Awareness – Leverage the health benefits of fruits and vegetables. Even though consumers may know them, a constant and consistent message will drive awareness.

Consumption – Work to increase frequency of purchases, especially on the items which more commonly are impulse items.

Education – Do not assume consumers know the whole story about fresh produce. Assume they do not because most don’t. Retailers have the incredible opportunity to educate and drive demand.

Increasing Promotion, Awareness, Consumption and Education (PACE) will be a win for retailers, consumers and producers alike.

An anecdote from the library from my retail life

In 2012, our company was in the planning stages of opening five new locations in a market in which we had not operated in the past. Months of preparation went in the planning, from the merchandising to the promotional strategy to how we would attract customers in a new market where our brand was known some but certainly was not a household name.

We carefully worked to understand the top items we had to carry, the items we needed to price most competitively, and the products and services that were most important to the community we would be entering.

What we learned very quickly as we rolled out the store openings was that the customers were much more familiar with our unique products and offerings than we had realized – products we didn’t include in the initial plan or were terribly under-merchandised on.

What we discovered was that our company brand had equity in a market that was 250 miles from our core base. While our new customers certainly expected to have access to locally produced products, they also were excited to have access to products other retailers in the new market did not offer or products for which our brand was considered premium over what was available.

A produce department should always be evolving, from product placement to selection to the size of offerings available.

In 2021, there will be a lot of evolving as consumers continue to change, habits adjust, and engagement becomes more fractured. Being prepared will make all the difference.


This column is part of a series by Joe Watson, who spent 30-plus years as the director of produce for Rouses Markets and was named Produce Retailer of the Year in 2014. Joe now serves as a vice president of member engagement for PMA.