(Sept. 2) Fresh juices are growing in popularity almost as fast as the fruit can be picked off the tree. Consumers see juice as a nutritional source of energy.

Cub Foods, Eden Prairie, Minn., didn’t offer any fresh juice three years ago. Now, in response to customer requests, the store features two brands of fresh juice in the produce department, says Mike Witt, corporate director of produce and floral.

The fresh juice industry is exploding because people don’t want preservatives, says Kerry Larson, owner of the single Fresh and Natural, Shoreview, Minn.

At a Wild Oats Market in Long Beach, Calif., one of 99 stores in the Boulder, Colo.-based chain., fresh juice sales have increased 20% during the past several years because juices are promoted as healthful, says Brian Ceballos, produce lead clerk.

In fact, the fresh juice category increased 17% from 2002 to 2003, according to data from ACNielsen. This outpaces the growth of other juices and beverages, says Michael Scheu, brand manager for fresh juice supplier Odwalla Inc., Half Moon Bay, Calif.

TO SQUEEZE OR NOT TO SQUEEZE

The decision about whether to do fresh juicing in-house depends on many factors.

Several years ago, Gardner’s Markets squeezed four to five gallons of fresh juice in the produce department daily, says Debi Kendrick, assistant store manager. The store sold half gallons of juice for $5 and quarts for $2.50. Five years ago, when the laws regarding fresh juice became more strict, Gardner’s Markets put away its juicers and began buying the product instead.

The store promoted fresh juice through in-store sampling, and now Gardner’s Market sells 80% more fresh juice than pasteurized juice.

The seven H.E. Butt Grocery Co. Central Market stores with headquarters in Austin, Texas, have made fresh juice in the stores since they opened nine years ago, says Lee Crenshaw, director of perishables procurement. Now the stores use fresh juice as a point of differentiation.

The stores showcase fresh juice in an open preparation area in the produce department so shoppers can see the freshness for themselves. Juice is made daily and displayed in the center of the produce department on ice. The 20 varieties of juice are rotated every day, and the ice is changed several times a day.

In-store juicing is time-consuming and requires labor, Kendrick says. When Gardener’s Markets did in-store juicing, four to six man-hours were devoted to juicing each day. The container must be cleaned between juices, and the machine has to be taken apart and cleaned at the end of the day.

Fresh and Natural buys fresh juice to save labor costs, Larson says. He estimates the store saves about 20 to 30 hours of labor a week by purchasing juice.

The store offers a wide variety of juices composed of berries and citrus, including six blends, he says. Fresh and Natural occasionally advertises fresh juices in its weekly circular. Customers can purchase 12-15.5 ounces of fresh juice for $1.99-3.19 regularly. When the juice is on sale, it sells for 20-30 cents less.

Gardener’s Markets promotes fresh juices during its annual farmers market. Beginning in January, the store sets up a little market outside every Sunday, where fresh juice sits in a cooler on ice. Customers can sample fresh juice and purchase a half-gallon for $4 or a quart for $2.50. Regularly, a half-gallon costs $4.50 and a quart is $2.79. The farmers market ends around March or April, depending on the temperature.

MERCHANDISING OPTIONS

Fresh juices are produce in a bottle, and displaying them in the produce department reinforces that message to consumers.

Fresh and Natural displays fresh juices in an upright, open-air refrigerated case near the deli and frozen food departments, Larson says. Many of the juices are a single-serving size so customers can grab one with a sandwich and go. The juices are merchandised together because Larson believes it’s customer-friendly.

Cub Foods carries the full line of Naked Juices from the Naked Juice Co., Baskingridge, N.J., and four flavors from Wm. Bolthouse Farms Inc., Bakersfield, Calif., including carrot and orange, Witt says. He ties in fresh juice with organic products and places them on a five-shelf cooler that’s maintained at 35-40 degrees, along the back wall, surrounded by cut fruit trays. Naked Juices’ Very Berry Smoothie is Cub Foods’ best seller, followed by the Strawberry-Banana Smoothie and the Super Premium Blueberry-Banana Smoothie.

The most popular flavor at Central Market is its original apple-lemon-ginger, followed by orange and carrot juices, Crenshaw says.

Gardner’s Markets merchandises fresh juices on the top shelf of the refrigerated produce case, which is kept below 40 degrees, Kendrick says. They are the first thing customers see when they walk in, and fresh-cut fruit salad and berries are displayed around the case.

Odwalla provides retailers with colorful Odwalla coolers that create brand awareness, Scheu says. Deliveries are made twice a day to several times a week to ensure freshness.

Heather Braun, director of consumer marketing and creative development for the Naked Juice Co., says Naked Juice provides retailers with the schematics for a shelf planogram and ways to use point-of-sale materials. Naked Juice focuses on the product rotation and cold chain management to ensure a 30-day shelf life.

JUICE IT UP

Naked Juice divides its juice line into three segments: Just Juices, which are made from a single item; Smoothies, which are juice blends of two or more fruits and vegetables; and Super Foods, which add vitamins and minerals. The blends are 100% juice, Braun says.

Odwalla offers 25 drink varieties, including Essential Juices, which are single-strength juices like orange and apple; Quenchers, which are light blends designed for thirst-quenching; Nutritionals, which are enhanced with vitamins and minerals; and Smoothies, which are fruit-based juices thickened with a fruit puree. The juices retail for $1.99 to $2.99 each for 15.2 ounces. Quarts, half-gallons and gallons also are available.

The popularity of fresh juices will continue to grow as America becomes more nutrition-conscious, Braun says. In October, Naked Juice will expand its juice line by launching Crème de Soy products — soy juices — including flavors like “Peach me – I’m dreaming” and “Berried Treasure.”

As more and more people take an interest in what they eat, America can expect to see continued growth and innovation in fresh juices, Scheu says.

Odwalla recently launched Blueberry B Monster, a drink that combines the flavor of blueberries blended with oranges, mangoes, bananas, apple juice and concord grape juice with functional benefits by fortifying it with B vitamins. This is the first product Odwalla has developed that showcases blueberries.