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RETAIL VIEW: Cut-greens firms target African-Americans

Ethnic marketing has been a popular concept in the produce industry for the past few years, but purveyors of this niche marketing are usually talking about the growing Hispanic or Asian communities.

While African-Americans have long since assimilated into the U.S. melting pot, as a group they do have some specific buying habits that do allow for niche marketing " though reaching that segment offers its own challenges.

While there are higher concentrations of African-Americans in urban centers, they are not a homogeneous segment of society, said Michael Brown, director of agribusiness development for Glory Foods in Columbus, OH. African-Americans, he said, are in all segments of society and all economic sectors.

Jan Berk of Cut "N Clean Greens, marketed by San Miguel Produce in Oxnard, CA, agreed. She said that it is difficult to target African-Americans because their buying habits are rarely defined by their ethnicity. Instead, geography and economics play a more important role.

However, there is a category of fresh produce that African-Americans do consume in large volumes: cut greens. Both Glory Foods and Cut "N Clean Greens have augmented their product lines in recent years with value-added packaged greens, and the companies have found phenomenal sales growth, fueled largely by African-Americans.

Consumer research told San Miguel Produce that African-Americans were purchasing more than three-quarters of its packaged greens. Glory Foods did not break down its sales figures, but Mr. Brown said that the company knows that the primary purchasers of its southern line of vegetables " whether canned, frozen or fresh " are African-Americans. However, the representatives for both companies quickly added that because of the health benefits of greens, sales are growing in all consumer groups.

But because African-Americans are the most prolific purchasers of these items, this is where both companies concentrate their marketing efforts, and each has become quite experienced in reaching this group. As such, some similar themes emerged in discussing the African-American consumer with Mr. Brown and Ms. Berk.

Both said that word-of-mouth marketing is very important in that community. "When they find something that is good, they share it with their families and friends," said Ms. Berk. "We have found that word of mouth is very important."

Mr. Brown echoed those same comments. "Word-of-mouth marketing is important. We find when people try our product, they are hooked." And presumably, they tell their neighbors.

Glory Foods has been in business for many years with canned and frozen lines, though its fresh line is only a few years old. Mr. Brown said that African-American consumers are well aware of the brand, but produce buyers are not. Consequently, the company has not received the instant recognition from retailers that it might have expected when it launched the fresh-cut greens line. However, the Glory Foods executive said that the firm?s double-digit annual sales growth for each of the last four years is making an impression on retailers nationwide.

Ms. Berk agreed that sales of fresh-cut greens have taken off and made a believer of many a retailer. Her company tends to focus on the major retailers, which research tells them is where most African-Americans shop.

Cut "N Clean has spent its marketing dollars at ethnic events frequented in large numbers by African-Americans. It has exhibited at about 10 shows a year for the last four or five years, with the shows ranging from ethnic expositions to jazz festivals. "We have chosen consumer outreach events because we have found that these consumers like to see and touch the product. Brand recognition is very important," said Ms. Berk.

She said that the interaction has also allowed Cut "N Clean to talk to these customers and gather information about their eating and buying habits. "Over the last few years, we have collected about 15,000 surveys, which have given us a lot of information about regional preferences and the age and income level of our consumers."

With this information, the California-based firm has been able to further hone its marketing efforts. Ms. Berk said that different parts of the country do want different mixes and different types of greens. The research has led to different mixes and the different products that Cut "N Clean offers.

Mr. Brown said that Glory Foods has been using an array of promotional opportunities to push its brand. The company is a frequent exhibitor at shows that attract African-Americans, and it advertises in national publications such as Ebony and in urban newspapers and radio stations that target that consumer segment. He agreed that consumers? geography seems to have as much influence on cut-greens purchases as anything else.

One selling point that seems to have made cut greens quite popular is that they have a very good value proposition. Mr. Brown said that it takes about two-and-a-half to three bunches of greens to equal the amount of usable product that is in a typical one-pound package of cut greens. "Bulk cut greens sell for an average of about 80 cents, so three bunches equal about $2.40. The national average for cut greens is about $2.49. So the price is about the same and you have the added advantage of having the product already cleaned and it is 100 percent usable."

Ms. Berk agreed that the convenience and value factors are very important. "Making greens from bulk is a time-consuming and messy process. We have young people telling us they love the way their grandmother made greens, but they just don?t have time, so they love our packages. And we have grandmothers telling us they don?t want to cut and wash them anymore, so they like the packaged greens as well."

Mr. Brown said that the rate of adoption of packaged greens also seems to cut along geographic lines. His company has strong sales in the Northeast and he said that consumers have quickly accepted packaged greens as a worthwhile convenience. "There are more two-income families in the Northeast, and they just don?t have the time? to cut and prepare greens like their parents or grandparents use to.

In the South, he said that it has been a slower sell. There are more garden-variety greens available, and so consumers are a bit more reluctant to switch to packaged greens. Nevertheless, as the value proposition becomes known, he said that more consumers are willing to try the product, and he repeated, "Once they try it, we?ve got them."

Both companies indicated that the crossover market is becoming increasingly important as greens move into the mainstream because of their strong identity as a very healthy product. Asian-Americans and Hispanic-Americans are joining African-Americans as strong consumers of greens, and Americans from northern states are learning what their southern counterparts have known for years: Greens are good and good for you.