MAITLAND, Fla. — Reacting to smaller overall tomato demand following the slow economy and a changing U.S. consumer, the Florida Tomato Committee has altered its winter and spring tomato promotion plans.

At the Joint Tomato Conference Sept. 8-11 in Naples, Samantha Winters, the committee’s director of education and promotion, told grower-shippers that the industry plans to engage in a different type of promotional program.

Instead of major promotional campaigns, the committee is using a $538,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture specialty crop block grant it received Sept. 10 to help fund intensive consumer purchasing research into what motivates consumers to buy tomatoes.

The committee will employ a retail merchandising staff to disseminate tomato category sales information directly to Florida tomato sales professionals and retailers to help supermarkets and other sales people implement the research recommendations.

Retail merchandising team

That staff, which consists of CeCe Krumrine, who markets for various commodities in the Northeast, and Sheila Carden, who merchandises for the Hass Avocado Board, Irvine, Calif., the National Mango Board, Orlando, Fla., and the National Watermelon Promotion Board, Plant City, will work with retail chains throughout the Southeast and Northeast, the primary marketing region for Florida-grown tomatoes.

“We will soon have the most comprehensive category research program underway for tomatoes in the eastern U.S.,” Winters said. “With information on emerging trends within the category, specific markets and chains and a better understanding of today’s consumer, we will have a clearer picture for the industry of how all these variables impact the category as we move forward.”

A key component of the program, Winters said, will be to put the tested information into merchandising practices and strategies in the stores.

The organization plans to provide continuous updates throughout the season, including distributing research reports, promotional best practices and a retail tool kit.

Starting in early December, the merchandisers will provide retailers customized promotional programs.

The program, which is scheduled to run through the end of the season in May, will use tools, resources and research reports to help increase sales, Winters said.

A different consumer

“So much has changed with the shopper these days,” Winters said. “We feel we have a good opportunity, but that we need to understand how consumers are thinking. We know some things, but we need to learn more.”

Winters said the recession’s effect on the consumer has been devastating.

She said the consumer is a “completely different person from six months or a year ago.” She said marketers are dealing with a completely different animal that has different purchase motivators.

While shoppers in the South have long preferred round green tomatoes, Winters said the economy has forced consumers to search for what they perceive to be items of value.

She said the committee believes it will have strong opportunities to increase retail tomato sales.

The committee plans to issue news releases and promotions retailers can conduct surrounding events such as the Super Bowl, heart health month in February, national Florida tomato month in April and national salad month in May.

Winters said the committee and its merchandisers will be able to do certain things in the marketplace, and then have the data to look at to see if it affected sales and is the right program to go to market.

For foodservice promotions, the committee plans to reach out to supermarket deli foodservice operations that sell sandwiches to shoppers.

Winters said sandwiches remain one of the most popular uses of Florida tomatoes.

Visitors to grocery stores during lunch often see long lines at the sandwich stations, Winters said.

She said the tomato industry wants to provide support to that sector and will have its merchandisers providing handling resources to operators.

In other foodservice promotions, the committee also plans to hold its yearly culinary student chef contest.