(March 2, 5:12 p.m.) INDIANAPOLIS — Retail and industry speakers gave retailers and vendors ideas on how to sell more produce by expanding their variety of products and reaching out to new opportunities at Indianapolis Fruit Co. Inc.’s fourth annual Winning at Retail conference and trade show.

More than 400 retailers and vendors gathered Feb. 23-24 for the show.

About a quarter of the attendees were vendors, who showcased their products at an opening reception. The next day was filled with industry speakers and presentations.

Pete Luckett, owner of two Pete’s Frootique stores in Halifax, Nova Scotia, said large chain supermarkets are catching up with smaller retailers in quality and specialty items.

“The world’s changing, and supermarkets are doing a bang-up job,” he said. “All that exotic, hard-to-find stuff we worked so hard at, it’s right there in their stores.”

Through Pete’s Frootique, Luckett said he seeks to create a unique consumer experience with unconventional merchandising and customer service. He often breaks retail norms by displaying items such as asparagus, for example, in displays out on the floor instead of in the mister rack, and then returning the product to the cooler in the evenings. It takes more man-hours, but is worth it, he said.

Buy local and fresh-cut programs will continue to grow, he said.

“I’ve seen little surges of ‘support the local farmer’ in my years in this business, but this time, it’s here to stay,” Luckett said. “People are thinking about that 100-mile diet.”

Government program opportunities

Tom Stenzel, president and chief executive officer of Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association, talked about the potential of the Women, Infants and Children program to increase produce sales, with increased vouchers of $6-8 per month to spend on produce.

“You need to work with state agencies and be ready when coupons come into your stores,” Stenzel said. “Help moms spend their money.”

He encouraged retailers to reach out to federal food stamp recipients, who have $35 billion per year without restrictions on what to buy.

Stenzel urged retailers to get involved in the farm bill’s school snack program, because U.S. Department of Agriculture money goes directly to school districts, which will be responsible for purchasing fresh fruit and vegetables.

Almost all fruits and vegetables bought for schools are canned, frozen or dried, he said.

“We’re challenged to raise that bar for fresh,” Stenzel said. “We’re introducing our product to kids with a 10-pound can of green beans — no wonder they don’t like it. Is that the way we want to introduce produce to kids?”

Stenzel is also optimistic about the effect the recent stimulus package could have on fresh produce in schools, with $100 million awarded for refrigerated salad bars in school lunch lines.

“Maybe go out and sponsor a school salad bar or partner with a school,” he said. “If kids are eating it at school, they’re going to come home and ask for it, and parents are going to come into your stores and buy it.”