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The specialty produce category is nearly impossible to define. Its interpretation is based on a product’s uniqueness, difficulty in procuring, newness to the market, short growing season, limited growing region and other factors. The category includes the odd, peculiar or particularly interesting in shape, size, color or texture. One commonality is that specialty produce is typically more expensive than conventional products.

specialtypeppers
With its wide array of varieties and ties to ethnic cuisines, the peppers are a mainstay of the specialty produce category. (Photo by Christina DiMartino)

A key role in the category’s success at retail is how specialty fruits and vegetables are displayed.

In 1991, Bobby G. Beamer and Warren P. Preston, both with the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University Department of Agricultural Economics, issued their report, “Shelf Space Allocation in the Produce Department: Implications for Marketing Specialty Produce.” Although it was researched and written 20 years ago, the information they put forth has timeless value.

The report states that fresh fruits and vegetables have attracted attention as potential alternative agricultural enterprises. The produce section also has grown in importance in the supermarket industry. As this level of importance has evolved, retail supermarkets have attempted to attract more business by expanding their produce lines. Large stores may stock as many as 300 to 500 produce items, compared to 50 to 100 items a few decades ago.

In addition to the necessary staple items, most supermarkets now offer a range of low-volume, specialty items to cultivate an image of variety and completeness in the produce department. The specialty section may be a few feet of shelf space set aside specifically for testing new items or it may be an integrated part of an expansive produce department where several varieties of lettuce are displayed only a few feet away from star fruit and locally processed private-label apple cider.

With the escalating emphasis on variety in the produce section, producers are finding opportunities in the specialty category. New producers may more easily penetrate the specialty produce market than the market for staple produce items. Compared to staple items, retailers generally require smaller volumes of specialty items. Thus, small, local producers or producer groups are often able to meet retailers’ quantity requirements. Retailers may not view year-round availability of specialty items as necessary and so may be more willing to stock items only when available locally. And it’s well known that retailers appreciate the positive image promoted by carrying locally grown produce.

Marketing specialty items is as unique as the category itself. Not every mainstream retailer represents specialty produce for reasons stemming from an unmatched consumer profile, such as pricing that does not match the income level of its customers, or avoiding ethnic items due to a lack of that ethnicity’s local population. Quick-serve foodservice operators also tend to avoid the category, but high-end restaurants relish it.

Many specialty items are initially grown on small farms and appear at greenmarkets long before retailers stock them. This has contributed to the resurgence in popularity of greenmarkets. Chefs love to shop at these markets.

Customers enjoy the specialty item in restaurants and then look for it at their grocers to prepare at home. Ultimately, produce buyers track the item to a source that can provide large-enough supplies, and it soon appears on produce department shelves.