(Aug. 2) The more you know, the more you’ll sell. And when it comes to the organic category, there is a lot to learn.

Many grower-shippers are using education programs to inform retailers about organics. These programs are designed to help you determine the best place in the produce department to merchandise organics, how to abide by certified organic rules and how to use point-of-sale materials to increase sales.

Frank McCarthy, vice president of marketing for Bridgeport, N.J.-based Albert’s Organics, says fresh organic sales are rising at 10% to 20% annually and have been for the past decade.

Mark Mulcahy, owner of Glen Ellen, Calif.-based Organic Options, a consulting and training firm that provides education about the organic industry, says organic produce accounts for 40% to 43% of organic sales and is a gateway to the entire organic category.

“If you really want to grow this category, then you have to invest in it,” Mulcahy says.

He says organic buyers are brand-loyal, choose things they perceive as healthy and better for the environment and are willing to spend more. And he says issues about the reliability of the products are diminishing as suppliers, like Los Angeles-based World Variety Produce Inc., provide a high-quality stream of organic produce.

QUESTIONS ABOUT ORGANICS

The main roadblock that many organic suppliers encounter when educating retailers about the category is that many stores decide to carry organics but don’t tell the produce staff why anyone would want to buy them. Mulcahy says stores are missing an opportunity if consumers have questions the produce staff can’t answer.

He says organic means more than being pesticide free and many people don’t realize that. He says organic produce is about having a relationship with the land.

Another challenge is simply convincing retailers to maintain regular produce practices when handling organics. Mulcahy says some produce managers will refrigerate tomatoes and peaches in order to keep the organic items together and prevent commingling with conventional products. This, however, results in quality breakdown that may turn off customers to the whole category. If consumers pay a premium price for a tomato and it doesn’t taste good because it sat in the refrigerator, they won’t buy it again.

“I think that if you teach your folks good handling techniques and what they can and can’t do with organics, then you don’t have to separate it out as long as it’s not compromising the integrity of the organic product,” he says.

WHERE TO TURN

Many suppliers offer training to assist produce managers.

Albert’s Organics sends merchandisers to customers’ stores to help design and service organic sections. For individual help, the company is working on a project that will offer organic handling information on the Web, McCarthy says.

Albert’s also uses an artist and former produce retailer to publish a monthly newsletter that deals with merchandising issues, including organics. The publication uses detailed information on how to cross-merchandise and trim products in the produce department. In addition, he says the artist creates signs for in-store merchandising of each month’s sale products, and he adds that signs should be large and clearly identify the items that are organic.

Organic Options helps retailers set up merchandising programs, too. The company first assesses its customer’s knowledge about the organic category. Then it determines the retailer’s day-to-day concerns, what is and isn’t working in its display and looks at its set-up to find ways to increase sales. Organic Options uses a workbook that contains ideas from other stores to accomplish this, Mulcahy says.

The company also helps retailers prepare answers to consumer questions. As a way to improve retail knowledge of the organic industry, he says the company offers taste testings so retailers can help relate to consumer questions about specific items. Retailers also can participate in farm tours. Organic Options takes retailers to farms so they can interact with farmers whose crops they’re selling.

Rick Feighery, director of sales for Philadelphia-based Procacci Bros. Sales Corp., says the company uses on-the-road merchandisers who visit stores on a regular basis to educate produce managers in their own environment.

“The guys at store level are the driving force behind what we do and can facilitate the items at the other end, and that’s how the business has grown,” he says.

Procacci offers retailers POS material that explains organics and conducts meetings in its own auditorium to discuss conventional and organic produce. Feighery says the company has spoken with 100-150 store managers to discuss the available organic products.

Feighery says most store managers want to know what the No. 1 selling item is in the organic category, how to start an organic section, where to place the section and what new items are available.