Denise Donohue, Donohue Associates
Denise Donohue, Donohue Associates

About this time last year, I had a real eye-opener. What I learned is that to engage consumers at the store (retail activation), you need down-in-the-trenches marketing.

If that sounds like market speak, allow me to translate.

My phone rang after-hours last fall, and I was pleasantly surprised to be speaking with a muckety-muck from a large grocery chain.

In typical produce cut-to-the-chase, he said, “I don’t meet the first two criteria of your Big Promotion. But I won’t have any problem claiming my rebate from you folks, will I?”

If your IQ is anything higher than a box of rocks, I don’t need to tell you the answer here is: “No, sir.”

But this is one of those situations when you’re fishing for perch and you hook a swordfish. Not sure if your line is strong enough, or the boat big enough. But I really wanted to land this.

“No, sir,” I gulped.

“We can work something out for you. But if you can’t meet those two criteria, we need some proof of our product’s identity at the point of sale,” I added nervously.

“Sounds reasonable,” he said. “So-and-so will get in touch with you.”

A few weeks went by, with the rest of the U.S. well into the Big Promotion. Finally, so-and-so called and said, “We’re gonna make this work. I’ll need packets with promotional signs addressed to each store.”

No problem. We scrambled and in 24 hours, dozens were laid out on the mail counter.

The next week, he asked for a cover letter to go in each packet. No problem. We sent it that day. And waited for approval.

The third week, so-and-so says, “How will this promotion look again? I think I’ll have to get into a store and set it up so I can tell all the stores how it should go.”

Now this is a moment that separates the men from the boys when it comes to marketing.

We were already three weeks into a six-week promo — especially frustrating because we had top-level buy-in. How much longer would it take this person to get into a store, set up a display, take some photos and then send it to legal?

Answer: Too long, if he ever got around to it.

Produce buyers and managers have hundreds of tasks daily. For them, getting our Big Promotion moving was possibly, probably, a back-burner concept.

For me and our growers, it was way front-burner. It involved in-store signage and decorations during the biggest selling month, and thus could move huge volumes.

Research from Nielsen Perishables Group tells us more than 80% of decisions to buy produce are made while the consumer is looking at it in the store.

Lettuce might be on the shopping list, but it doesn’t get into the cart until Mama decides it looks good.

Can we, as produce shippers and marketers, influence her decision moment?

For sure, and it can happen through retail activation.

If we can tell our story, or even reinforce our distinguishing characteristic at the point of sale — in addition to having great-looking produce — we’re more likely to make the sale.

So in pursuit of the influential in-store moment through retail activation, our team hit the road. We went to one of so-and-so’s stores and set up the model display we’d previously discussed.

It took three stores to find one with the proper product and a cooperative produce manager. But when we had the display arranged, we took cell phone photos and sent them to our point person while we were still in the store.

He e-mailed back directly, and asked us to move the boxes a bit to the right. We did, snapped and e-mailed more photos. We got approval for the project the next day, and a commitment to extend it two more weeks because of the late start!

Our team discussed the “teachable moment” in this success, which was truly the pay-off for years of fine-tuning the store relationship and the promotion.

We copied it again and again in the future.

The eye-opener was the realization that actually showing a produce buyer how a promotion would look in his stores by doing the nitty-gritty details vastly improved our opportunity for success. Cell phones and iPads make this easier than ever.

I don’t know if it was our job or his job to set up the display in his store. I do know our willingness to get into the car, hunt out a good store, talk to the managers, haul some props and generally take time away from our “regular work” was exactly what sealed this deal.

A bonus: Once the photos hit his inbox, this produce executive could easily forward them to his team with a rousing message of his own.

Folks, that’s an inside directive you want.

When we as produce shippers or sellers skip over this detailed front-line work, we’re making our consumer connection that much less likely.

Yes, it’s simpler to send a pile of money to do floor mats or in-store demos — if you have it. But sometimes the thrifty, hands-on answer to retail activation is right in front of our eyes.

Denise Donohue is founder of Donohue Associates, DeWitt, Mich., a marketing and public relations firm specializing in agriculture. Before that, she was director of the Michigan Apple Committee, Lansing.