(Dec. 17, 3:05 p.m.) In the economic slowdown, greenhouse vegetable growers must work harder to get their message out, and they are asking retailers to help keep specialty and core hothouse items moving.

“We’re giving prices out and promoting the product,” said Jeff Taylor, salesman for Prime Time Sales LLC, Coachella, Calif. “It’s going to be the marketer’s job to push all items — tomatoes and peppers — and push them to the forefront … so we can move the volume through the system in a sluggish economy.”

Bryant Ambelang, chief marketing officer of San Antonio-based Desert Glory Ltd., advocates aggressive marketing, close cooperation with retailers and creative marketing tools.

“We have television commercials, we do trade advertising, we do radio commercials. We really push our product hard,” he said. “We also provide to the retailer a whole slew of different merchandising racks so we can intercept the consumer as they enter the store.”

Ambelang said point-of-purchase racks draw attention and help differentiate his hothouse products.

“It goes back to basic marketing principles: packaging for differentiation, name it for differentiation and partner with the retailer,” he said of Desert Glory’s “tray-dressed” patented packaging. “We package ours completely different. From a design standpoint, it’s eye-catching to the consumer.”

Ambelang points out that beyond marketing, the best test is quality and product performance.

“If the product truly performs, it has that differentiating aspect to it, then consumers will find it and they will reward you,” he said.

Dino Dilaudo, salesman for Westmoreland Sales, Leamington, Ontario, said greenhouse growers are providing retailers with a very high quality, safe food and that stands out.

“They do provide them with a very value-added item,” he said, adding that Canadian retailers have increasingly used point-of-sale displays and featured greenhouse produce in weekly fliers.

“The quality of the produce department personnel that have been handling the product have also been increasing every year,” he said. “They know more about the product, handling it properly, giving good quality to the end user, and that will get more repeat buyers.”

Dilaudo praised Cincinnati-based Kroger for its product tasting and sampling of hothouse veggies.

“Kroger is very good with in-store demos with all items, not just hothouse,” he said. “At the end of the day, all of the retailers that are on top of their game are focusing on sales and the best way is to promote a good quality item offered at a good value.”

James Milne, executive category director for greenhouse for The Oppenheimer Group, Vancouver, B.C., said Oppenheimer tries to help retailers employ best practices for promoting greenhouse produce.

“Obviously, a lot of the merchandising sets have been built around field products and the greenhouse sector is making its own inroads,” he said. “Generally there’s an understanding of the characteristics of the greenhouse category that is very positive right now. Most build big bright vibrant displays and they get good payback from them.”

Milne also cited growth in value packs and custom packs, especially in peppers. He recommended the attractive red-yellow-orange pepper value pack for a “time-starved household shopper.”

Offering More

Some retailers are finding it is necessary to offer more specialized varieties and other forms of differentiation.

“Overall our costs are up from last year because of some of the measures we took this year,” said Chris Ciruli, partner and chief operations officer at Ciruli Bros. LLC, Nogales, Ariz. “We moved away from wax boxes and to recyclable boxes that are laminated to have a more green footprint. That’s what a lot of the foodservice retailers care about now. To show that we improve on that, it actually increases cost.”

Dilaudo said he believes there is more interest from retailers for “interesting items for the hothouse category” that are different from traditional cluster tomatoes, beefsteak tomatoes, seedless cucumbers and bell peppers.

“We expand to new items that we think customers are looking for,” he said. “Our mini cucumber has been growing the last couple of years. It’s great for snacking and for children’s lunches. A healthy choice for snacking food.”

Organics demand

Ricardo Crisantes, general manager for Cris-P Produce Inc., Nogales, Ariz., said, “so far, so good” for organics from the hothouse category.

“We’ve seen people that are devoted. This is a lifestyle choice for them and their family,” he said. “I have not seen decreased demand for organics, though I am predominantly a winter supplier.”

Crisantes said with a “good chunk” of his business in organics, he became concerned toward the tail end of the summer, when the financial crisis unfolded.

“I was concerned that people would still demand food, but would they demand organic food?” he said. “What we got at the (Produce Marketing Association’s Fresh Summit 2008) were several panels with retailers and produce managers. They were not panicking and throwing out the organic category right away. And they were actually keeping it and supporting it and thought there was a healthy, strong consumer behind it. They didn’t panic. That was the critical part.”

Crisantes said he is pleased with the confidence going forward, but he said it will take creativity to demonstrate value to consumers.

Chick Goodman, vice president of sales and marketing for HerbThyme Farms Inc., Compton, Calif., thanks the cable television cooking shows for their creativity and promotion of fresh herbs.

“We are very fortunate that the herb category is one of the fastest growing in the supermarket,” he said. “Our businesses is growing fantastically. We show double-digit growth.”

HerbThyme has year-round and winter-only greenhouse plantings of basil, oregano, chives, tarragon and thyme.

“In the old days it was the gourmet chef that already knew how to cook that was using herbs. Today, for soccer moms who don’t have time to cook, fresh herbs add instant flavor in a 15 to 30- minute dish without adding sugar, fat and salt,” he said.

Goodman said his specialized greenhouse product helps attract high-end consumers to stores.

“They may be able to buy the same apple, orange, or banana at any store in town, but if a store has top quality herbs, organic herbs, we will draw in that top customer, that home chef,” he said. “And they don’t just buy a bag of potatoes. They buy the shiitake mushrooms, yellow and red peppers. That’s the customer that’s going to buy the higher margin specialty produce.”

With his herbs serving as a magnet for customers, Goodman said his line is getting featured in ads and coupons over the holidays.