(Dec. 23) Unlike “Leave it to Beaver,” families typically don’t sit down to eat dinner together these days. Society has consumers running ragged, and the term “time-starved” has become commonplace in the Englishlanguage.

As technology advances, the produce options you can provide in the single-serve category are increasing. Craig Reichel, president of Reichel Foods LLC, Rochester, Minn., says technological advances have yieldedhigher quality fresh-cut fruits and longer shelf life — two factors that could make or break a sale.

And as obesity continues to rise in the United States, single-serve produce items are gaining in popularity.

“In our Apple Valley, Minn., store, sales are up 158 percent in cut fruit,” says Mike Witt, corporate director of produce and floral for Cub Foods, Eden Prairie, Minn. “They are doing about 2½ times what they did last year on the fresh-cut fruit category. Consumers are looking for healthy snack items and fruits and vegetables they can include in their kids’ lunches.”

Cub Foods, a subsidiary of Supervalu Inc., is a chain of 115 stores, of which 81 are corporately operated.Witt says the company’s entire fresh-cut category of fruits and vegetables (excluding bagged salads) was having double-digit increases over last year.

A success story like this might make you want to run out and add a single-serve category to your produce department, but don’t act on a whim. There are five questions you should ask if you want to pocket the green instead of putting sales in the red in your single-serve category.

1. WHO SHOULD I USE AS MY SUPPLIER?

Before you can start stocking single-serve items, you need to find out where you can get them. Suppliers usually are split into two categories — local/regional and national — and the reasons for using one over the other vary.

Filemon Bavilla, produce manager at Nob Hill General Store Inc., Gilroy, Calif., a chain of 26 stores, says the store buys its single-serve items from national suppliers like Dole Fresh Vegetables Inc., Salinas, Calif. The stores buy a 6-ounce bagged salad from Dole. He says the store also carries individual bags of sliced fuji, granny smith and golden delicious apples from a national supplier.

At PW Supermarkets Inc., San Jose, Calif., consumers can find Cool Cuts vegetable sticks and dip from Tanimura & Antle Inc., Salinas. PW also merchandises the single-serve Chicken Caesar Lunch Pack from Fresh Express Inc., Salinas.

Rick Antle, president of T&A, says the company’s Cool Cuts line includes carrots with ranch dip, celery with ranch dip and celery with peanut butter. The company also offers single-serve Caesar or Santé Fe salads.

Antle says a national supplier offers retailers the ability to have single-serve items delivered with salad or commodity orders, which keeps freight charges down. National suppliers also tend to package products that have a longer shelf life because the products need to withstand delivery times, which can take up to six days. Antle says the company’s salad bowls are packaged with a breathable membrane giving them a 17-day shelf life; salads in clamshells, however, typically have a four- to five-day shelf life.

Some large, national suppliers have the ability to act like regional suppliers by distributing to retailers from regional satellite offices. Antle says the company’s regional distributors are in close proximity to its customers, so deliveries take less travel time. He says this allows retailers to stock single-serve items that have additional ingredients in them with a shorter shelf life.

“We have some regional suppliers for us preparing clamshell-type packages like Greek salads or nicoise salads. They can push the envelope more,” Antle says.

Witt says Cub relies on a local distributor — J&J Distributing Co., St. Paul, Minn., — to supply its single-serve line of fresh-cut fruits packed under the Cuttin’ Time label. J&J offers a vendor management program for fresh-cut fruits and vegetables including its single-serve items.

“The key is to get the turns and keep it fresh. That is one of the reasons we use J&J. They make daily deliveries to the store to rotate the display and maintain freshness. You almost have to use a local company to do that,” Witt says.

Kevin Hannigan of J&J says its program will help grow the single-serve category.

“Volume is not necessarily the answer,” Hannigan says. “You need frequent deliveries micromanaging the category.”


2. WHERE SHOULD I MERCHANDISE SINGLE-SERVE ITEMS?

There are many theories on where to merchandise single-serve items. Analyze your produce department and store to find the right place for you.

At Cub, single-serve items are merchandised in a 9-foot grab-and-go deli case in the front of the store near the checkout lanes. Items like mixed fruit parfait cups and clamshell packs with grapes, cheese and crackers work well there because consumers associate the deli department with grab-and-go items.

Or you can create a snack food category in the produce department for single-serve items.

“You can’t nestle [them] among carrots and broccoli because the produce department is an exotic display of color. You have to make a nice looking display that draws consumers to it. You can’t hide it in a corner,” Reichel says.
In January, Reichel Foods introduced new lunch combo single-serve packs in addition to its Dippin’ Stix. The lunch packs combine apples and caramel dip with ham or turkey and cheese and crackers, or carrots and ranch dip with ham or turkey and cheese and crackers. Reichel suggests merchandising the lunch packs in the produce department because that’s where the Dippin’ Stix brand is recognized.

Other retailers say cross-merchandising single-serve items with their fresh, bulk counterpart is the best way to go.

Bavilla of Nob Hill says he sells a couple cases a week of sliced, fresh-cut apples by merchandising them on the top shelf of the store’s refrigerated apple display.

Others say cross-merchandising single-serve items in other parts of the store works well. Antle says one of its customers had a mobile case of grab-and-go items including T&A’s Cool Cuts and soda water that was merchandised in the coffee and doughnut area in the morning to capitalize on the morning rush.

“During the day it would go back to the produce department for restocking. At noon it was rolled out by the deli, and at the end of the day it was placed by the check-out counters,” Antle says.

3. WHAT PACKAGING WORKS BEST?

Packaging can be key to getting consumers to purchase single-serve items.

“Consumers eat with their eyes, so we have to package it in pretty attractive packaging,” Reichel says.

Joseph Belli, produce buyer for PW, says consumers have a predilection for buying things that look fancy, so if you present something in an attractive way, it enhances the amount of product people buy.
But looks aren’t always the most important factor. The practicality of the package also counts.

J&J’s parfait cups come in plastic containers that easily fit in the drink holder of automobiles for consumers who eat on the run.

John Loughridge, vice president of marketing for Del Monte Fresh Produce NA Inc., Coral Gables, Fla., says 7- and 8-ounce plastic bowls are convenient for those eating at a table. He says including utensils like a spork (a combination spoon and fork), as well as having space for possible dressings or fruit sauces also need to be taken into consideration.

4. HOW DO I PRICE AND PROMOTE SINGLE-SERVE ITEMS?

Consumers expect the price of single-serve items to be higher than fresh products — they are paying for convenience. But you need to make sure consumers recognize the value in the product and are willing to pay for it.

Reichel says he has seen the company’s Dippin’ Stix priced anywhere from 99 cents a pack up to $1.29 a pack.

“The consumer has readily accepted that price point,” Reichel says.

To keep the price down so consumers will try the single-serve items, Witt says Cub doesn’t mark up the products.

Bavilla at Nob Hill says he doesn’t persuade consumers to purchase one item over the other. Instead, he tries to make sure consumers know the advantages of all the items out there, including the single-serve sliced apple packs.

“I ask questions and they let me know that they might live alone and not want to buy a whole head of lettuce or bag of apples, so I suggest single-serve products. I know the benefits of the products and give them reasons to buy them,” Bavilla says.

To promote sliced apples, Bavilla says he likes to place them on ad in the beginning of September when the apples are in season and children are going back to school.

Witt says retailers shouldn’t compare the price of single-serve items with the price of bulk produce items. Instead, retailers should compare single-serve prices to prices of other convenient, food-to-go products.

“When a customer goes into a McDonald’s, they know they will drop $5 to $6 on lunch. You have to relate that amount to the customers at lunch time and get that business; promote that you have created a healthy alternative,” Witt says.

Antle suggests retailers make the analogy with a bag of chips.

“When talking about Cool Cuts, we suggest selling a three-pack for $1.59 to $1.99. When you contrast that to bag of chips that maybe has five ounces of product in it selling for $2.50 that is loaded with salt, consumers will find that they get the same satisfaction from the Cool Cuts as from the chips,” Antle says.

Loughridge says Del Monte also uses instant redeemable coupons, in-store demos and check-out coupons from Catalina Marketing Corp., Anaheim, Calif.,to promote single-serve items.

5. CAN I OVERCOME THE CHALLENGES?

After you have answered the previous questions, you still need to know that some challenges come about when merchandising single-serve items.

First, almost all single-serve items are extremely perishable and require constant maintenance of the cold chain. Loughridge says Del Monte’s single-serve items should be kept at or below 40 F (4.4 C), although below 36 F (2.2 C) is preferred.

Second, shelf space needs to be at a maximum so that the product gets the recognition it needs right off the bat to grab consumers’ attention and have a fair chance in the marketplace, Reichel says.

“You see rows and rows of lettuce, but not many rows of the snack category,” Reichel says. “Some retailers are just testing the items in a small space, but the problem is that you have three seconds to attract the consumer’s eye, and if you haven’t set up the best display with ample space, you lose them.”

Thirdly, you need to be prepared for shrink, and try to keep it at a minimum. Witt says the hardest part of keeping a single-serve category is keeping the case fresh and getting the inventory turns necessary to sell the most products.

“You have to monitor it and pull the product when it’s not fresh. It’s a new item and it takes time for customers to see it, so you take a fair amount of shrink on it when it’s a new category,” Witt says.