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HAMILTON, NJ — The trend toward promoting locally grown produce has reached a new level this year as one of the country’s leading wholesale club stores has stepped up a pilot program it launched last summer.

With Eastern produce deals in full swing, BJ’s Wholesale Club, based in Westborough, MA, is taking advantage of consumers’ preference for locally grown product by promoting its “Farm to Club” program.

 

New Jersey Secretary of Agriculture Douglas Fisher (center) examined some Jersey Fresh cucumbers with Dominic Viglione (left), a produce buyer for BJ’s, and Doug Johnson, C.H. Robinson’s account manager for BJ’s.
Launched last summer on a small scale at the wholesale club’s Manahawkin, NJ, store, the program was expanded this year to include additional locations in the Garden State and dozens of other outlets in nine states on the East Coast.

 

BJ’s stores in Florida began the promotion in April, while it kicked off in recent weeks in Maryland, Virginia and New Jersey, and was set to launch July 19 in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

C.H. Robinson Worldwide Inc., the Eden Prairie, MN-based global sourcing, transportation and logistics provider, is a partner in the program and a key reason for its success.

Doug Johnson, BJ’s account manager for C.H. Robinson, said that BJ’s approached C.H. Robinson two years ago with the concept of promoting locally grown produce to its customers.

Part of the planning process involved deciding which items to include in the program and in what volumes.

“We decided to try what we called our ‘Manahawkin Road Show,’ where we basically set up a large display of local produce outside in the parking lot of the store,” said Mr. Johnson. “We did it as a test to gauge consumer interest in such a program and to see what would sell. Basically, we wanted to see what was executable.”

Mr. Johnson said that interest was very high among consumers for what BJ’s dubbed its “Farm to Club” promotion. However, they realized that having it outside was not feasible.

“When BJ’s first approached us, we acted in more of a consulting role,” said Mr. Johnson, who added that C.H. Robinson’s good working relationship with New Jersey growers and the state department of agriculture raised its profile in the partnership.

Mr. Johnson said that C.H. Robinson helped identify growers for the program and handles the logistics involved with moving product from the field to one of three regional distribution centers, where it is graded, packed to quality and size specifications, and assigned a bar code for traceability, before being sent to a BJ’s location for sale.

“Our customers really key in on locally grown items,” said Dominic Viglione, a produce buyer for BJ’s.

Mr. Viglione said that BJ’s considers product local if it is grown in the same state in which it is sold. Under the “Farm to Club” program, product that is picked on a Monday, for example, is in the distribution center by Tuesday and then for sale at a BJ’s on Wednesday. “It’s typically a three-day process,” he said. “C.H. Robinson does a tremendous job for us.”

At a July 19 promotion at the club’s location, here, just east of the state capital of Trenton, squash, cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, blueberries and corn were the featured items in a center-aisle bin that bore both “Jersey Fresh” and “Farm to Club” signage.

New Jersey Secretary of Agriculture Douglas Fisher attended the event and was impressed with the products on display under the “Farm to Club” banner.

“Kudos to BJ’s for following through on their commitment to promote ‘Jersey Fresh’ items,” said Mr. Fisher. “It’s also great that they are promoting the farmers. It’s really paying dividends for them in terms of sales, which have increased as a result.”

Lori Anderson, regional manager for BJ’s, said that in the last three weeks, sales of locally grown produce items have increased 116 percent in dollars and 95 percent in units, lending credence to the program’s success.

Mr. Viglione, who credits fellow BJ’s produce buyer Rob Johnston with coming up with the “Farm to Club” concept, has 40 years of produce retailing experience, the last four at BJ’s. He previously held positions at Kmart, Star Market and Supervalu. Currently, produce has never been bigger at BJ’s.

“In the last three years we have really advanced produce at BJ’s,” said Mr. Viglione. “It has become a key reason why people shop here. And this program will help us continue that trend.”