Selling One At A Time

Pat Hopper would have been proud of me. For those of you who don’t frequent produce industry conventions, Pat has been for many years a leading proponent of artichokes. First at the board manager of the California Artichoke Advisory Board, then working with the Castroville Artichoke People (a group put together to specifically promote artichokes from Castroville) and currently at the California Artichoke and Vegetable Growers Corp., where she is director of marketing.

Pat was the one who taught me to really appreciate artichokes. An appreciation I got to express many times over when I had the opportunity, along with Mary Zenorini Silverzweig (that’s Mary of the “a minute in the kitchen with Mary” in-store POP video series), to spend a weekend in a small, but rapidly growing East Coast supermarket chain, one with a “whole foods” orientation.

Mary gave away her terrific cookbook to every consumer who purchased $5.00 or more in the produce department while the chain showed Mary’s artichoke videotape along with a display of artichoke recipes. I spent time talking with every consumer who would talk to me about artichokes.

We had some beautiful 18-size artichokes (these are the big ones) and they were being retailed at normal retail for that store, $1.39 each — a retail price actually high compared to other stores in the neighborhood, but in line with the slightly elevated price structure for sales in the store.

Our appearances had not been advertised, and frankly, I was distressed at the small display of artichokes we were given to work with.

Had circumstances been ideal we would have advertised our appearances and the free cookbook offer had large beautiful displays of the artichokes and put them on a special promotional price. Finally, we would have had the opportunity to actually cook some artichoke dishes and give the cooked artichokes out for samples.

Yet, even without these things, we were able to boost artichoke sales tenfold over normal levels. In fact, we could have sold more but the produce managers begged us to stop because they would get in trouble as the stores were imminently running out of artichokes.

In the industry, we tend to get very excited about the nutritional attributes of our products. Yet, the funny thing was not a person asked about the nutritional attributes of the artichokes. All the consumers seemed pretty certain that all green vegetables, including artichokes, were pretty healthy to consume. This corresponds strongly with the findings of the Focus on Produce consumer research project, which shows almost universal knowledge that produce is good for you.

The biggest obstacles that surfaced during my “in-store weekend” regarding artichoke consumption came in the area of usage.

First there was a big group of people who expressed a genuine love for artichokes, reporting that, in fact, they frequently ordered them in restaurants. But a large group seemed uncertain over how to prepare them. In addition, many consumers were uncomfortable selecting artichokes. They didn’t know how to tell if an artichoke was good quality or not. Frequently they wondered if the dark spots on the artichoke affected the quality.

Another group didn’t like to cook. Mary estimated that, even in a microwave oven, these large artichokes would take 15-20 minutes to prepare. For many shoppers that put the product strictly in a “special occasion” category. In a related point, some said they loved the product, but it took too long to eat! The process of going leaf by leaf through the artichoke was just more time-consuming than they were willing to tolerate for meals at home.

Some people just didn’t like artichokes, of course, although often we could get these folks to try them once more with a new recipe.

Nutrition did enter into consumers’ concerns but in an unexpected way. They were satisfied that artichokes were healthy all right, but some were hesitant to buy explaining that “I love artichokes but only with butter, and I don’t want to eat the butter. If I have artichokes in the house I know I’ll give in.”

I’m not sure what we proved with our weekend in the stores. We certainly proved that if you have two top-notch produce experts pushing a product you can increase sales. I’m pretty certain that the artichokes we sold were additional department sales as we were positioned at the end of the produce shopping pattern and so people didn’t really see us until they purchased all the produce they intended to. Even when we left, the display, the video, and recipes seemed to keep sales at elevated levels.

Only time will tell if we won over some new artichoke eaters, but I would bet we did.

The real lesson I think the weekend reminds me of is something the produce industry sometimes seems to forget. That is that fruits and vegetable are sold one at a time. That an increase in produce consumption is ultimately the result of millions of individual transactions – men, women, even children reaching out for that artichoke, that potato, that apple, that banana one more time than they did on their last trip to the market. And more than anything else, that one additional item is sold by overcoming the obstacles to the sale. This means making sure the item is A) available for sale B) that consumers know how to select the item, and C) that consumers know how to prepare the item.

Pretty basic stuff really: Make your product available and make sure everyone knows how to shop for and use the product. But still, this is a lesson worth remembering at a time when nutrition promotion is the rage. As an industry, we better avoid distraction from the basics of selling to our customers.

Pat Hopper may have had a brochure or a sign with the nutritional info on artichokes, but she knew it was the sizzle, smell and flavor of sautéing artichokes that would keep me running back for one more sample. It’s a lesson produce industry can’t afford to forget.