(Aug. 18) Fruit baskets are synonymous with the winter holidays, but if you’re ignoring them the rest of the year, you could be ignoring a good profit potential and a way to differentiate your produce department from your competitors’.

Retailers and suppliers find that consumers increasingly are turning to gift baskets for just about any occasion.

“Baskets are a year-round business,” says Mark Luchak, produce director for the five Rice Epicurean Markets based in Houston.

Holidays, hospital stays, birthdays or any time welcome or thank-you gifts are in order are occasions for gift baskets, he says.

One of Rice Epicurean’s customers is a real estate firm that sends out a basket every time a client buys a house. Up to 40% of fruit basket sales at Rice Epicurean are to corporate accounts.

Peter Goulet, director of produce merchandising for Hannaford Bros. Co., Portland, Maine, a chain of 120 corporately owned stores that distributes to 300 markets, encourages produce managers to drum up additional fruit basket sales by contacting local businesses like real estate offices and insurance firms.

Produce managers design their own fliers that encourage business owners to contact the store for fruit baskets. They also deliver fliers to gift shops at local hospitals.

ANYTHING GOES

For $12.50, the two Marrazzo’s Thriftway stores, Robbinsville, N.J., will pack anything a customer wants in a gift basket. Shoppers simply go through the store, pick out what they want, pay for it and turn it over to a basket maker who comes up with a gorgeous gift.

“We’ve had some crazy requests,” says owner Sam Marrazzo.

People have included portable cameras, batteries and even supplies for a medicine cabinet as a housewarming gift.

Lee’s Marketplace, with a store in Smithfield, Utah, and another in Logan, Utah, sells nearly all of its fruit baskets during the holidays, says Chris Saunders, produce manager at the Smithfield store. But there are some special requests, often as gifts for hospital-bound patients, throughout the year.

Saunders learned how to put the baskets together from a designer hired for the holidays at a previous job. He now passes on what he learned to employees hired during the holidays to maket the baskets.

Besides fruit baskets, Rice Epicurean offers gift-boxed items like grapefruit, apples and pears.

“There’s no limit to what we’ll do,” Luchak says.

OFF THE SHELF

Most stores offer a varied selection of baskets to choose from.

In addition to its custom-made baskets, Marrazzo’s has a number of standard baskets priced from $20 to $100.

The vast majority contain seasonal fruit. Peaches and berries are popular during the summer, and hardier fruits like apples and navel oranges are typical choices for wintertime. No matter the season, Marrazzo says, he packs the biggest fruit available.

The company’s basket program is handled by the floral department manager, who buys the fruit from the produce department.

The basket-making process can be time-consuming and expensive. Marrazzo estimates that it takes at least 25-30 minutes to put a basket together properly, and it takes $4 worth of cellophane and a $1.50 bow. The store delivers up to 10 miles for a $5 fee and ships worldwide via UPS.

Most of the fruit baskets at Rice Epicurean are put together by the specialty foods manager and the produce manager, Luchak says. About half the sales are off the shelf, and half are custom-made, often while the customer waits.

A gift basket program requires a commitment of time and labor, but it can be a good way to enhance the image of your department and offer your customers something unique.

“(Gift baskets) are a lot of work and a lot of stores don’t want to be bothered with them,” Marrazzo says, “but we’ve built a good base of customers from them.”