When Pleasanton, Calif.-based Safeway Inc. announced plans to promote local produce in mid-June, some industry observers cried "greenwashing."
Safeway, like most retailers, already gets a good portion - up to 45% in California, according to the company - from local growers.
Others say it is a good strategy to let consumers know what is going on in the back room.
Safeway's program is designed "to draw customer attention to the company's wide selection of locally grown produce, including the quality, freshness and sustainability benefits of the product," according to a news release.
Safeway touts shoppers can find more local produce per item than at a typical famers market and highlights partnerships with key grower-shippers.
Bringing attention to the faces of the industry is essential, said Bryan Silbermann, president and chief executive officer of the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del.
"I think it is great for any retailer to promote the relationships it has with produce growers - be they down the street or across the globe," he said. "Everyone has a story to tell about the locale in which fresh produce is grown. And locally grown produce has the added benefit of supporting the community in which the store is located."
Safeway's program is simple, inexpensive and makes sense for fresh produce in particular, said Gene Detroyer, a retail consultant and professor of international business management for the European School of Economics.
A shopper pays more attention to strong branded items like Cheerios, Tide detergent or Pop Tarts but may not be shopping produce with a certain name in mind.
"It's a mindless process," he said. "What you have is a trend in the industry, particularly with both Trader Joe's and Whole Foods, where they have featured fresh produce and give it a sense that there's something special."
People have not been thinking about produce in that way before and an initiative like Safeway's that highlights produce as being local, organic or otherwise special may help draw customers away from premium banners.
"Because of the produce, Safeway can eliminate another stop and extra shopping trip," Detroyer said.
David Livingston, a Pewaukee, Wis.-based retail analyst, disagreed.
"I just don't think customers are going to get too excited when they have known all along what products are grown locally," he said.