Challenge To The Trade

Just because people know that something is good for them doesn’t mean that they will do it. This goes for an awful lot of things in life, including eating more produce.

The industry is currently promoting a massive 5 A Day campaign which, along with other industry efforts, is principally a consumer education effort designed to explain the health benefits of consuming more fresh produce and less of other items.

These efforts are noble and can only be praised. The danger, however, is that the produce industry will be distracted from dealing with the real roadblocks to increasing produce consumption.

Current data from the Focus On Produce consumer research program, sponsored by PRODUCE BUSINESS and The Fresh Approach, point out the dilemma. As the graph below indicates, 99% of purchasing consumers agree that fruits are an important source of vitamins, 95% agree that vegetables are an important source of fiber, 76% agree that eating more leafy vegetables can help prevent cancer and 96% agree that most people don’t eat enough fruits & vegetables.

It doesn’t get much better than this as far as consumer recognition of the health benefits of produce goes.

But this is what consumers already believe. Now, of course, reinforcement is always wise, and there are always nefarious plots out there to demean produce because of pesticides or waxes or irradiation or whatever, so preaching the health benefits of produce is prudent.

Unfortunately, we have no good evidence that this kind of health-oriented marketing actually leads to higher consumption. And the danger is that the industry will be drawn into a state of complacency by these programs. Relieved that someone else is helping boost produce consumption, industry firms might ignore the work required to better fit our products to the needs of our customers.

If we really want to increase consumption, the challenge is not to our national organizations. It is to the individual firms in the trade. Last month, I used this space to address some of the enormous challenges this industry faces at the retail level. Micromarketing, adequate training and effective merchandising are all far from reality.

I think it is reasonable to say that if we could arrange for every produce department in America to consistently offer a well-stocked display of bananas with a full range of ripeness, with some suitable for immediate consumption and some good to hold for a week, we would likely do more to increase produce sales in supermarkets than we could by any national promotional campaign.

The real challenge for produce marketers may be the need to adapt our products to meet consumer demands.’ In analyzing the research we are conducting, one senses that the key factor holding back the consumption of produce is not consumer ignorance about its healthfulness, but rather a variety of specific complaints about the utility of the products themselves. Among the factors, the industry needs to deal with are the following:

These are big problems, and they are not easy to solve. But if this industry is really serious about increasing consumption, these are the types of difficulties we need to resolve.

  • Produce often is an ingredient, not a food. Though the snack fruits such as bananas, apples, grapes, oranges, etc. aren’t as affected by this, for most product items, the decline in cooking is taking a toll. Fresh vegetables may be good for you, but when you just get home from work, it’s a lot easier to microwave a Lean Cuisine than to make a salad. More and more today, people want to purchase complete foods, not things they have to work at before eating. Even a salad bar is a pain to many people, with too much assembly required.
  • Waste is too great. As households have gotten smaller and people eat out more, it is harder for consumers to use up a head of lettuce or a head of red cabbage. This is a serious business because almost nothing reduces a consumer’s perception of value on a produce item as much as the memory of having had to throw half of it away as waste. Though the industry has taken some steps in dealing with this through melon bars, etc., the fundamental problem remains. All other areas in the supermarket are offering smaller serving sizes, but a head of lettuce is still a head of lettuce.
  • Delays hurt our business. Most efforts to make produce convenient to consumers flop because they are half-hearted efforts. Countless salad bars around this country are not even set up until 10:30 am, long after the local McDonald’s has sold salads to people picking them up at 8:00 am to take to work.
  • Distribution is inadequate. The produce distribution system simply doesn’t put produce where consumers might buy it. Many produce items are snack items that compete more with Frito-Lay than with lettuce. Yet there is virtually no produce available in convenience stores. Gasoline station food outlets that sell tons of chips and brownies sell not one bunch of grapes. The problem is, in large measure, one of distribution. The little store in our headquarters building receives regular deliveries from distributors of snack foods, soft drinks, candies etc. When it comes to produce, they go to Publix and buy some to resell. Why? Because there is no distribution network for small-volume produce deliveries.