You can’t squeeze a ripened tomato with an iPhone.
Even with online and mobile shopping at our fingertips and players like FreshDirect  thriving, consumers seeking the freshest and healthiest produce are heating up business at brick-and-mortar stores. Major discount retailers like Walmart and Target are getting in the game, joining supermarket chains in beefing up fresh food offerings and getting more creative about in-store marketing.
“Today’s shoppers crave more sensory, exciting in-store retail experiences to offset all the advanced shopping technology we enjoy,” says Anne Howe, former vp, market intelligence at shopper marketing agency Mars Advertising and now a consultant.
Thanks to the organic movement and vocal champions of better eating like Michelle Obama, the fresh food business is experiencing a bounty. More than 7,100 farmers’ markets operated in the U.S. last year, per the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a 20 percent rise versus 2010. Retail sales of fresh produce sprang up 4.3 percent last year, with the average price per item up 5.5 percent year over year, per Nielsen. What’s more, online searches for “fresh fruit” are up some 20 percent this year versus last, according to Google Search Insights.
The quality of a store’s fresh foods is the single biggest factor for consumers choosing a supermarket, according to the 2012 Shopper Engagement Study by Point of Purchase Advertising International (Popai).
In the first quarter, Whole Foods, the granddaddy of fresh food retailers, posted the best results in its 32-year history, enjoying 31 percent growth in earnings.
And the lure of fresh food is not lost on chains like Walmart and Target. Each has added fresh produce to its stores in recent years, while offering full-scale grocery departments inside their superstores. Walmart says it will double sales of fresh produce from local farms in its U.S. stores by the end of 2015 and has allotted more than $1 billion to improve its global fresh food supply chain to get produce into stores faster.
Target says consumer demand led it to redesign about 850 stores to include expanded fresh food departments. There, shoppers are greeted with a colorful, open-market design that highlights a carefully selected grocery assortment, including open-case refrigerators and low-slung tables of fruit, vegetables and baked goods.
Meanwhile, the supermarket chains are also getting fresher. California-based Safeway, which operates 1,700 stores across the U.S. and Canada, recently launched Safeway Farms, a line of packaged fresh produce and salad mixes. It also is revamping its so-called “lifestyle” stores with expanded fresh produce and organic and specialty foods. Safeway tapped Oakland, Calif.-based Lowney Architecture, which designs Apple’s retail outlets as well as selected Whole Foods stores, to make over its Bay Area locations.
But better choice and more inviting displays are just the beginning when it comes to in-store fresh food marketing. One innovator in shopper marketing is Wegmans, a New York-based chain of 80 supermarkets on the East Coast. On the weekend of June 8, Wegmans hosted “Grilling Harvest” parties at all its stores. As customers entered, they were greeted by balloons and piles of peppers, onions, eggplant and other seasonal veggies. There were games for kids, and employees wore badges that read “My Favorite Veggie Is...” Putting a fresh spin on the tried-and-true tactic of product sampling, staffers grilled assorted vegetables, sharing bites as well as recipes and cooking advice.
The event was just one in a series of fresh vegetable-themed celebrations planned by Wegmans, including a “Corn Harvest Party” next month and “Tomato Harvest Party” in August. Wegmans says it sells upwards of 700 different varieties of fruits and vegetables a day, many of them locally grown. And while other chains have seen sales soften in recent years, Wegmans is thriving, revenue last year rising 8.7 percent to $5.6 billion.
Perhaps not surprisingly, eye-tracking research from Popai found that some of the longest “dwell times” occur in the produce section, where shoppers look, sniff and squeeze in search of the very freshest items. Marketers of fresh foods would be wise to play to consumers’ desire for that tactile experience, advises Rick Acampora, managing partner at media agency MEC North America.
“A chain store is not the same as a farmers’ market, but it can give consumers [an indication] that the food it sells is fresh enough, and they can walk out of the store with pride over what they purchased,” he says.
Consider one chain that didn’t quite appreciate the customer’s need for intimacy with those organic pears. When Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market, owned by U.K.-based Tesco, launched in the U.S. in 2007, it wrapped its produce in cellophane as a way to preserve freshness. While that practice is common in the U.K., American shoppers balked, believing the wrapping was being used to hide flaws.
Along with sensual cues, retail marketers can woo fresh food fans by educating them about where their produce comes from, qualities to look for (a ripe avocado is slightly soft to the touch) and how long to store food items, according to the experts.
A problem for many large retailers is that they have traditionally left shopper marketing up to the national brands. The difference with fresh food is that the product often originates from small, regional players. “Supermarkets have to take ownership of in-store marketing of produce,” Howe says. “They should be leading the way and be open to new, clever, even theatrical ideas.”
Large retailers can compete with farm stands and specialty markets by getting more creative about promoting their produce to increasingly savvy and educated fresh food fans. “Think of a promotion that combines local lettuce, Florida grapefruit and Caribbean spices with a recipe and a nutritional message. It would make the retailer seem personal, inspirational and authoritative to shoppers,” says Don Growhoski, chief visionary officer of Ryan DarkHorse, a division of marketing firm Ryan Partnership, whose clients include Dole.
There is certainly room for innovation when it comes to marketing fresh food, Popai suggests. Retailers, its study suggests, have an opportunity to “educate shoppers about farms and food manufacturers, explain nutritional benefits, and provide ideas on how to incorporate fresh foods into their meals.”
Still, too often retailers are fixated on price and the deal of the day. Yet when it comes to fresh food, price isn’t always the most important factor, according to experts.
“It takes discipline to include inspiration and education [about] in-store marketing,” says MEC’s Acampora. Independent grocers, restaurants and other sellers “seem to be way ahead of the major retailers on tapping fresh food trends,” he adds.
After all, he points out, even Subway sandwich shops—purveyors of the “$5 footlong”—have coopted the word “fresh.”