CHICAGO — It’s the eternal question of produce marketing: When and where do consumers decide what and how much to buy?
If I were to classify my own produce shopping habits, as my household’s primary shopper, I’d have to say more than 50% of my decision is made in-store, according to seasonality, appearance and price.
Then maybe 25% of my decision is based on reading the weekly circular and promotions online for my primary stores, 5% to 10% on advertising/branding, and then rest is insider knowledge from being editor of a produce news organization.
I’d guess the 80% to 85% that doesn’t involve my day job is pretty typical, but how do I know?
Two things I learned this week help confirm that most consumer decisions to buy are made in-store.
As part of hosting our inaugural Midwest Produce Conference & Expo on Aug. 13-15 in Chicago, we held a consumer panel Aug. 13 and a retail tour Aug. 15.
The consumer panel featured 10 people of varying demographics who live in the Chicago area. We required that they be their household’s primary shopper, and, I have to confess, their general lack of ignorance made the panel slightly less fun.
I was really hoping for some stupid comments like buying local bananas or that organic produce is safer.
Most of the panel agreed in-store promotion, price and appearance were the best ways to influence their decision to buy fresh fruits and vegetables, rather than social media, advertising or branding.
Price was a huge factor, half of them said.
That message was reinforced on the urban markets retail tour, which took us to a downtown Mariano’s Market, owned by Roundy’s, and a Southside store of Shop and Save Markets, a five-store chain. Both stores were a little over a year old.
Both also provided excellent examples of effective in-store marketing and competitive pricing.
Ross Greco, merchandiser for Mariano’s, said in-store marketing was a top priority to his chain.
He does all the normal marketing such as circulars and signs, but he said Mariano’s goes out of the way to have sampling every day. In our case, we got to sample five varieties of melons on a tray. But Greco said the fruit and vegetable samples change every day.
He said it’s not uncommon for nearby residents to visit the store five times a week, so it’s important that the location vary displays of its 1,100 SKUs in the summer.
Mariano’s heavily promotes locally grown in the summer, when available.
One example was a sweet corn display with a 2-foot poster of supplier Didier Farms, which is a third-generation, 100-year-old operation in suburban Lincolnshire, which happens to be the headquarters of Vance Publishing Corporation, owner of The Packer.
The Shop and Save store was in a Hispanic and Polish neighborhood, so product catered to those ethnicities.
Brian Holzkopf, produce operations manager at Shop and Save Markets, said his chain’s produce department was the largest contributing department to sales, and having product that appeals to consumers as they shop was a big reason.
The store had an enormous produce department and provided samples of fresh fruit, dips and salsas and sausages.
Prices were pretty low on staples, while more specialty items had higher price points.
The agriculture story of the year is the drought in the Midwest, which has touched about 60% of the country.
The drought has significantly cut yields on corn and soybeans and raised input costs while creating a short-term glut in meat markets, which will be followed by a shortage, leading to rising prices later this year and next year.
It’s not a happy situation if you like to eat in the U.S.
But it really hasn’t affected fresh produce much. Hail has been a bigger factor in Michigan and Washington, for example. Even with local sourcing becoming bigger, the drought isn’t a problem.
Mariano’s Greco said he’s noticed some local sweet corn has shorter shelf-life and some missing kernels, but then the next load will be fine.
When it comes to melons, Greco said quality may even be up this year, with higher sugars and quicker ripening because of the heat, although that comes with shorter shelf-life.
Local Midwest produce will soon be gone come football season, but at least quality has been good enough for consumers to miss it this winter.
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