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ORLANDO, FL — A panel of retail produce managers from around the country gave an upbeat snapshot of consumer produce purchases during a workshop at the Produce Marketing Association Fresh Summit International Convention & Exposition, here, Oct. 15-18.

Led by longtime retail consultant and observer Harold Lloyd, the four participating produce managers from Florida, Illinois, Utah and California talked about a bevy of subjects ranging from the economy to industry trends. The panel was comprised of Dennis Goodwin of Sweetbay Supermarkets in Florida, Tim Millett of Lin's Marketplace in Utah, Vince Ottolino of Caputos New Farm Produce near Chicago and Mike Clay of Save Mart Supermarkets in California’s Central Valley.

On the topic of the economy, it seemed to be the consensus that consumers are looking for bargains but that there is also opportunity for selling higher- priced items when they are merchandised properly.

Mr. Lloyd told the retailers in attendance that they should "not give up the idea of selling higher-priced items, but be smart about it."

The managers discussed various strategies they are employing to increase produce sales, such as deeper discounts on front-of-the-department items to create a low-price impression.

Mr. Lloyd said that this is very important because most consumers rarely recall prices, so perception is reality. Give consumers a few great prices when they walk in the door, and they remember your store as a low-price leader, he said.

Mr. Millett of the five-store Lin’s Marketplace said that his chain changes the schematic of its department at least every quarter to vary the traffic pattern of the shopper and make consumers look for what they want, in turn possibly seeing something new.

Not surprisingly, all the managers — three of whom have been on the job for at least two decades — revealed that there is heightened food-safety awareness within their operations. It is a concern that has led even to the reduction in passive sampling due to contamination concerns.

Mr. Lloyd said that passive sampling — unattended samples for consumers to try on their own — is frowned upon since that can be a contamination point. Two of the managers said that passive sampling has been eliminated in their stores, while one said it is now limited to whole items such as grapes, and a fourth said that his operation has not changed the way it does sampling at this point.

While each of the managers is required to spend more time making sure his produce department products are properly labeled as required by country-of- origin labeling laws, none said that those labels have affected sales one way or another.

One, however, did ask that shippers come up with a uniform point on the carton to place the country-of-origin label.

Conversely, the locally grown movement for produce has reached store level and is affecting each of these produce managers in varying degrees.

The Caputo’s store manager, Mr. Ottolino, said that carrying locally grown produce provides a big boost and significantly increases sales for the particular product.

Mr. Millet of Lin’s Marktplace said that the explosion of farmers markets in his area has deprived his stores of sales, adding that interacting with these other produce managers has convinced him that he should embrace the local farmers rather than compete against them.

Mr. Lloyd said that one idea is to allow farmers markets to set up shop in the store’s parking lot one day a week, which brings customers to the lot and most likely into the store to buy products not available at the outdoor market. Both the California and Florida produce managers noticed less of an impact from the locally grown movement, probably because their stores are located in areas where commercial production is local production.

The trend toward organic produce also received mixed reviews, depending upon where a store is located.

Dennis Goodwin of Sweetbay said that his shoppers are not that interested in organic produce and certainly do not want to pay a premium for them.

Tim Clay said that it is all about location for Save Mart and stated that stores located in the Central Valley do not do much organic produce business but that those in the Bay area have tremendous organic sales, with price being no barrier.

During the discussion, Mr. Lloyd also pointed out some of the creativity displayed by these particular produce managers that he discovered during the panel-choosing process. For example, he lauded Mr. Millett for turning aging produce into signature items such as store-made salsa and beautifully presented cut melons.