(Feb. 20) With Chinese New Year starting Jan. 29, you’ve probably ordered a variety of Asian produce. But don’t let the idea of promoting Asian items fade after the lantern festival greeting the Year of the Dog is over.

Chinese food has become the No. 1 choice for people dining out, says Tristan Millar, vice president of sales and marketing for Frieda’s Inc., Los Alamitos, Calif., and at home, consumers often replicate what they enjoy at their favorite restaurants.

There are two distinct markets for Asian produce, says Tony Leung, president and founder of Sanwa Growers Inc., Tampa, Fla.:

1. Hard-core ethnic consumers who seek out-of-the-ordinary items like gai lan.
2. Mainstream shoppers who desire more common offerings like napa cabbage, bok choy and snow peas.

Dual Approach

Consider a two-pronged approach to cater to the two groups, suggests Kate Reeb, vice president of marketing for Coast Produce Co., Los Angeles.

For Asian customers, offer a large front-end display with an extensive selection of Asian items and multilingual signs. For non-Asians, give out recipes and post point-of-purchase materials that describe Asian commodities and how to use them.

Top Sellers

One of the fastest-growing items is baby bok choy, Leung says. Consumers are attracted to its size, dark green color and enticing overall look.

Napa, baby bok choy and nira grass — “a kind of a cross between garlic and onion” — are some of the top sellers in the Asian category at the Econofoods store in Houghton, Mich., says Steve Davis, produce manager. But the store, one of a group of six, also stocks complementary items like won ton wrappers, jarred kimchi and sushi ginger in the produce department.

Offering such items has become a category trend, says Millar. She also recommends merchandising meal solutions, for example, veggies with tofu, a sauce and almonds.

There is increased interest in value-added products, too, says Robert Schueller, director of public relations for Melissa’s/World Variety Produce Inc., Los Angeles. Last year, Melissa’s introduced a line of three cut, ready-to-go Asian vegetables in microwaveable trays.

Quality-Minded

Asian consumers typically have inherited from their parents and grandparents a preference for top-quality produce, says Greg Corrigan, director of produce and floral for Raley’s Supermarkets, Sacramento, Calif.

“They want the best fuji apples or the freshest broccoli,” he says. Price matters, but not at the expense of quality.

About 10 percent of the 137 stores in the Raley’s chain are in areas with an Asian demographic of 50 percent or more, he says. Those stores, mostly in San Francisco’s South Bay area, carry up to 25 percent more Asian items and merchandise them in a wet rack. Some locations bring in more items from specialty suppliers to compete with chains like 99 Ranch Market, a division of Tawa Supermarkets Inc., Buena Park, Calif., which focuses on the Asian community.

The 102-store Schnuck Markets Inc., St. Louis, Mo., doesn’t have a large Asian consumer base since it’s based in the Midwest, says Ed Pohlman, category manager. But even mainstream consumers have taken a liking to stir-fry.

Schnuck’s stores typically carry 40 to 50 Asian offerings, including a full line of related items like chow mein noodles, fortune cookies and kimchi. Most of the fresh produce items are displayed in a 4-foot section of a three-shelf upright case.

Apt Timing

Because of consumers’ resolutions to eat more healthfully and the timing of the Chinese New Year, January often is the month retailers choose to introduce a line of Asian items or to expand existing lines, Schueller says.

Raley’s stores gear up for Chinese New Year by featuring Chinese items on ad and hanging signs in Chinese that wish shoppers a happy new year.

Econofoods marks Chinese New Year with a display 40 feet long and 4 feet wide stocked with “anything we have that’s Chinese food,” Davis says.

Reeb of Coast Produce emphasizes it’s important to realize the many subsets of the Asian culture. That’s why Coast analyzes the demographics of its customers’ market areas, meets with produce supervisors and specialists to discuss their goals and makes suggestions about what they should carry. Korean meals, for example, tend to consist of a number of small dishes that may feature meat, fish, spinach, tofu, sauces and perilla leaves filled with barbecued meat or shrimp.

Promote All Year

To get the most from the category, promote stir-fry vegetables like bok choy, gai lan and lo bok throughout the year, and build displays for value-added items like won ton and egg roll wrappers, Schueller suggests. He also recommends pricing items individually rather than per pound because Asian Americans typically like to know the cost of their purchases before they reach the checkout.

Frieda’s works with retailers to develop customized promotions based on their clientele, store locations and the items they want to feature, Millar says.

Coast offers a booklet explaining Asian cuisine, a monthly newsletter with merchandising techniques and cultural facts, information sheets that describe new items, and multilingual signs in Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, Chinese and English, Reeb says.