(Feb. 10) Asparagus and artichokes have more in common than just heading up the alphabetical listing on your vegetable order sheet.

Both are in good supply at this time of year and, while they may not be top sellers in the produce department, they’re definitely must-haves, especially for special occasions like Easter.

ASPARAGUS

“Easter is a huge promotional time for asparagus,” says Mike Rubidoux, vice president of sales and marketing for Lee Brands LLC, Salinas, Calif.

In fact, it’s probably the biggest promotional time of year for the spear-shaped vegetable, he says.

Wayne Barkley will attest to that. As director of produce operations for Marvin’s Food Stores, a chain of 23 supermarkets based in Fayetteville, Ark., Barkley says asparagus gets a big sales lift at Easter. Mother’s Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas are other hot promotional periods for the vegetable.

On average, asparagus accounts for only 2% of produce sales at Marvin’s. Barkley sells 60 to 75 cases a week. But that figure can jump to 400 cases during a holiday period.

Asparagus sells best from early fall to spring, Barkley says. He features it on ad about eight times a year, knocking down the price from $2.99 a pound to 98 cents to $1.99 a pound.

Barkley usually merchandises asparagus in the back of the department with broccoli, cauliflower and other fresh vegetables. When it’s on sale, he’ll move it to a Euro table at the front of the department and create spillover displays to attract more attention and provide adequate supplies.

He also has found that products like Cheez Whiz cross-merchandise well with asparagus.

Since Marvin’s stores generally are not high-volume units, Barkley likes to order asparagus in 11-pound boxes. Other carton options range from 12 pounds to 30 pounds.

Robert Neal, produce manager for one of seven Nowell’s Foods stores based in Columbia, Mo., usually displays only about four or five bunches of asparagus on a wet rack at a time. When it’s on sale — five or six times a year — he’ll increase the display to 30 or 40 bunches and merchandise asparagus on a bed of ice.

A typical sale price at Nowell’s is a real bargain — 88 cents to 99 cents a pound — compared to a regular price of $3.99 or $4.99 per pound. Neal’s store usually goes through five to 10 11-pound cases of asparagus a week, but that volume increases to 40-50 cases when product is on sale.

The stalk diameter of asparagus can range from small (3/16 inch) to colossal (1 6/16 inches or larger), but Neal says his customers seem to find standard-size stalks, about 5/16 inch, to be more tender.

However, Cherie Watte, executive director of the California Asparagus Commission, Stockton, says the opposite has been found to be true. She says it is a misconception that thinner asparagus is more tender and that thicker stalks are meatier.

Neal uses point-of-purchase materials like nutrition cards, die cuts, banners and bin wrap to make his asparagus displays more inviting. “You’d be surprised how many shoppers pick up recipe cards,” he says.

Because it’s generally so pricey — typically $3.99 a pound — asparagus is not a big seller at the Maceys supermarket where Phillip Nosack is produce manager. At his store, one of 10 markets in the Sandy, Utah-based chain, Nosack usually keeps just enough on hand to let his customers know it’s there.

But sales explode from one or two cases a week to 20 to 25 cases when it’s on sale at 2 pounds for $3 or 99 cents a pound.

Summer is the busiest time for asparagus sales at Nosack’s store, but movement is good during just about any holiday period.

About once a year, the store offers white asparagus just to feature something different. While a few shoppers give it a try, Nosack says most are afraid to try it. “They think it looks strange,” he says.

Watte says the asparagus commission is repeating its “Extraordinary” promotional campaign in 2003 but adding new photography for ads and new recipes in its consumer brochure. The commission also offers price cards.

Rubidoux of Lee Brands says his company offers brochures and recipe cards to help retailers promote asparagus, and the firm is working to develop a bagged asparagus program.

ARTICHOKES

History books say artichokes are one of the oldest foods known to man, but many consumers seem intimidated by a vegetable that resembles a hand grenade.

That’s why Ocean Mist Farms, Castroville, Calif., is coming out with an easy-to-follow diagram on its tray packs and poly bags that shows exactly how to prepare them, says Maggie Bezart, vice president of marketing and sales.

The green globe is the most common artichoke variety, says Pat Hopper, manager of the California Artichoke Advisory Board, Castroville. It’s available year-round, but supplies peak from mid-March to mid-April and from mid-September to late October.

The imperial star and the emerald are other generic varieties, but grower-shippers also offer their own proprietary artichokes that are especially popular during windows of reduced availability on the green globes.

Ocean Mist, for example, offers the desert globe, and Capurro Marketing LLC, Moss Landing, Calif., has the royal globe.

Nosack of the Maceys supermarket says his customers like larger-size 18 and 24 artichokes, but they’re not big sellers unless they’re on sale.

Artichokes can retail for $2.99 each at Maceys, which results in sales of only a case or two per week at Nosack’s store. But when he lowers the price to 99 cents apiece, he moves up to 25 cases a week.

Nosack has offered packages of nine baby artichokes but says they require a lot of work on the part of consumers who must prepare nine individual chokes, and he has not had many requests for them.

Artichokes account for only 1% of overall produce sales at Marvin’s stores, Barkley says, but when they’re on sale for 88 cents to $1.29 apiece instead of their usual $1.50, sales increase as much as four times.

Once Barkley was able to buy a whole truckload of artichokes and sell them at three for $1. Unfortunately, he says, that was a one-time deal, probably because of an oversupply, and he has not been able to repeat that promotion.

Hopper of the advisory board recommends displaying artichokes with contrasting colored items, like lemons or radishes. And she suggests cross-merchandising with ranch dressing or other salad dressings. “Many consumers don’t realize that artichokes can be dipped in anything other than mayonnaise or butter,” she says.

Bezart of Ocean Mist Farms says extra-large and large artichokes usually are used as appetizers; medium sizes are commonly used as side dishes; and versatile baby artichokes can be used as an ingredient, as an appetizer or as a side dish.

To help retailers move more artichokes, Capurro is revising its packaging to include cooking methods in addition to the recipe that already is there, says Deanne Cagnacci, special projects director.

Capurro also has tear-off pads with recipes and instructions on how to prepare artichokes.

Ocean Mist also plans to have a wealth of materials available this spring to help retailers promote artichokes. A new merchandising card that tells you everything you need to know about artichokes — including care and handling information, pack sizes, facts about growing areas and a list of POP materials available from Ocean Mist — were sent to customers in January and are available by contacting Bezart.

In addition, shrink-wrapped packages of recipe and preparation cards were set for distribution in March, separate 10- by 11-inch signs on how to prepare baby and medium to large artichokes are available, and a diskette with photos that can be used in ads will be sent out upon request.

A full-color recipe page with the theme “Artichokes on the Side” was sent to newspapers in January, Bezart says. The page should start showing up in local publications throughout the spring.

“It will give consumers a lot of very easy recipes,” she says.

Finally, she says, watch for a special Cinco de Mayo cheese artichoke recipe from Ocean Mist this spring.