Hard-Headed Assessments

At every industry roundtable, lecture or panel discussion, some industry member will give the following speech: “We, in the produce industry, have the world’s most beautiful, best tasting and most nutritious food, and so, all we have to do is get our message out to the consumer, and we will boost consumption.”

This statement, or some variant of it, is repeated so often it is like the chant of a religious cult. And like most chants, repeating it often can serve to block thought. The industry would benefit by thinking about this claim rather than just asserting it.

It’s true that in nutrition, produce does seem to have the upper hand…for now. All major health and governmental groups are urging increased produce consumption. And, in fact, recent research is pointing to the unique benefits of eating produce as opposed to taking supplements.

Still, the industry should be mindful that this advantage may not last forever. Our knowledge about nutrition is much more limited than most people realize. What nutritionists tell people today is totally different from what nutritionists preached 20 years ago.

Beyond this is the tendency of other food industries to concentrate on developing healthier, more nutritious products. From fat-free cakes to low cholesterol eggs, development efforts are directed to enhancing food’s nutritional quality. On the other hand, I cannot recall a produce company introducing a fruit or vegetable with the marketing claim that it is health-enhanced. We may need to devote resources to developing low-fat avocadoes and calcium-enriched peaches. Otherwise, with time, other foods may surpass produce in the eyes of nutritionists.

When it comes to beauty, it may be in the eye of the beholder, but few beholders can deny that the displays of produce featured in our best supermarkets are truly beautiful. At the same time, there is a real question as to how typical that experience is for consumers. More often than is generally acknowledged, consumers are confronted with awful produce displays. Many stores never have anything outstanding and even great stores are often a disaster late at night.

I was in a fairly new 65,000 square foot store at 10:30 pm last week. This store was part of a national chain with a good produce operation. It was atrocious. Picked-over bananas had fruit flies swarming nearby. Berry displays were knocked over and so sloppy a shopper wouldn’t want to touch them. Clearly, a decision was made to let the department “run down” to closing. It was run down all right.

Unfortunately, most stores operate backward when it comes to staffing a produce department. The operators set a budget for labor and do what they can within that budget to make things look nice. We need to look at the opposite approach, where a standard of appearance for the department is set and then labor is apportioned to meet the standard.

Over the years, trade associations have run many retail tours, and trade publications have featured many retail profiles. What unites all these is that, virtually without exception, the stores “spruce up” for these events, adding labor, restocking even ordering additional items. Well, it is fair enough to want to make a good impression on your guests, but what about customers? Aren’t consumers the most important guests’ supermarkets have visiting?

Then there is taste. Produce can be delicious, but it is not at all obvious that the industry delivers a consistently satisfying product. Or, to be more precise, that the industry wouldn’t sell more produce if fruits and vegetables consistently tasted better. How many people who love navel oranges don’t buy them because the last one they bought was dry inside?

When I was a produce wholesaler, I had an Amish farmer who called me every year to sell his melons. My customers’ melon consumption probably quadrupled when we sold his deliciously sweet melons. In the winter, I often can’t find a melon that slipped naturally from the stem, much less a variety as sweet as that local farmer grew.

Our national consumption figures hide a multitude of sins. So when the consumption statistics are published on an annual basis, I look a bit askance. If we eat less than three servings a day, on an annual basis, that probably means we are already breaking five a day in the summer. Which means that the reason people don’t do it year around relates to price and quality of the available product, not lack of awareness.

Nobody is saying this is an easy problem to solve. After all, it is hard to have melons in New York in February that taste like Pennsylvania-grown melons in August. But at least the industry needs to acknowledge the problem, devote research to it and not be self-satisfied.

Some things can be done. Frieda Caplan gave a speech years ago chastising the Washington State Apple growers for not fighting when retailers displayed apples on dry racks. She pointed out the absurdity of spending countless millions to refrigerate apples in storage and on the truck only to plunk them on a dry table at a store.

I’ve found the problem goes well beyond apples. Many shippers and commodity promotion groups are so anxious for the big table display space, they urge retailers to utilize the non-refrigerated space for their products. This, of course, may mean a mealy product or shortened life for the product in the consumer’s kitchen.

The benefit of this tactic in terms of increased sales is immediate and quantifiable, whereas the cost in dissatisfied consumers is distant and obscure. But the cost is very real, none the less.

Finally, lack of produce distribution continues to hamper product sales and depress consumption. Go into any gasoline mini-mart and see the snack food competition, in the form of cookies, candy, chips, etc. Produce has lost the war in this arena because we didn’t show up for the battle. There is simply no distribution system to get produce into these types of venues.

I bow before no man in my devotion to “getting our message out.” But every survey for years has indicated that people know all about how healthy produce is. So we are kidding ourselves if we think that promotion alone will do the job of boosting consumption.