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RETAIL VIEW: Spartan Stores kicks off Michigan's Best campaign

With its Fourth of July weekend ad, Michigan-based Spartan Stores kicked off its summer-long Michigan's Best promotion to support locally grown produce, flowers and other products.

In the produce and floral departments, according to Steve Wright, the retailer's produce and floral procurement manager, more than 300 products will be involved.

"Of course, everyone knows Michigan has apples and asparagus, but there are so many other items locally grown that people just don't know about," Mr. Wright said. "We have a very diversified agricultural sector. We are probably only behind California in our diversification."

He said that the list is much too long to recite, but some of the items produced in the state are peaches, corn, cantaloupe, cherries, celery and fall fruits and vegetables such as pumpkins and squashes. In addition, he said that Michigan has a very well-developed flower-growing industry "that people don't really know about."

While other states have promotion programs stressing their locally produced products such as Jersey Fresh, Ohio Proud and California Grown, Mr. Wright said that difficult economic times shuttered the Michigan provincial program that was called Select Michigan.

Hence, many consumers are not familiar with the vast array of products that the state produces -- but they are interested.

Michigan's Best is "a great program for us," said Mr. Wright. "Consumers like it, especially considering the high unemployment in our state."

The Spartan Store executive admitted that produce margins take a little bit of a dive in the summer in his region because retailers compete with home- grown product, roadside stands and farmers markets. "The summer tends to be a time when there is a little bit of price deflation," he said. "We are not expecting a big sales boost [from the promotion], but it has been a [public relations] hit, that's for sure."

Spartan Stores first launched the Michigan Best campaign in 2009, and Mr. Wright said that the amount of publicity it generated caught the firm by surprise. Both print and broadcast media jumped aboard and gave it a lot of publicity. He surmised that the recession, combined with the state's well- publicized high unemployment rate because of the downturn in the auto sector, resonated with the media because the program provided an example of a Michigan firm trying to help the local economy.

This year, the program has been expanded to all Spartan Stores, plus all the other retail operations that it services. Mr. Wright said that more than 350 stores are participating under a number of different retail banners. The products being promoted both in-store and in the firm's newspaper food- page ads cut across different product lines. Though produce and floral are among the more visible and obvious departments for locally grown promotions, there are also local products in deli, meat, dairy and even the center of store, including Kellogg's cereal, which is made from some Michigan-grown field crops.

The produce procurement manager said that the July 5 newspaper ad kicked off the effort with several pages of Michigan Best items featured. That ad will be followed by two more consecutive weeks of advertising local products. After that, the promotion will continue through Labor Day with different items featured each week in the ads. The continuation into September will give the produce department the opportunity to highlight some of the fall crops, such as apples.

Although the program will not last deep into the fall under the Michigan Best name, Mr. Wright said that Spartan Stores does identify the points of origin of local crops throughout the year.

Scott Phelps, vice president of Gold Coast Farms Inc. in Fennville, MI, called the locally grown promotion "a godsend for Michigan growers." He said that Michigan consumers love to support locally grown product, so it is excellent when the state's retailers identify and promote the product as such.

As of early July, Gold Coast's peach harvest was expected to begin in the second half of the month, and the firm's apple orchards will begin to yield results around Sept. 1. Mr. Phelps said that Gold Coast sells most of its peach and apple production to Spartan, so the promotion is especially gratifying. "This year, though, Mother Nature is playing a little trick on us," he said. "I'm not sure how big the crops are going to be, but they will be smaller than last year. With the promotion, we could sell much more fruit if we had it."

He reiterated that consumers love to buy local fruit, and he was very grateful for the effort of one of the state's larger retailers. He said that the promotion worked very well for the tree fruit grower in 2009, and he was expecting a good boost in sales again this year. "They do a very, very good job promoting the local crops for us," he said of Spartan Stores.

Dave Miedema, president of E. Miedema & Sons Inc. in Byron Center, MI, was equally effusive about the Spartan Stores promotion. "We definitely get a bump in our numbers the weeks when they run that promotion," he said.

E. Miedema provides Spartan with a wide array of vegetables including sweet corn, cabbage, squash, napa and bok choy. "Spartan Stores is one of our best customers. They are definitely on the top of our list," said Mr. Miedema. "We support that program, and it definitely makes a difference."

He said that about 50 percent of the firm's production is sold in the state, so promotions such as Michigan Best are very important to the firm's bottom line. He added that it also helps educate Michigan consumers about the diversity of the state's agriculture.

Bryan Maat, president of Maat Produce Inc. in Benton Harbor, MI, is also supportive of the effort, but he said that measuring its impact is very difficult. Maat Produce is also a vegetable shipper and supplies green beans, cucumbers, squash and tomatoes to Spartan Stores as well as many other customers, especially in the Southeast. "Probably only 5-7 percent of our production stays in the state, so it is difficult to feel the impact [of the Michigan Best promotion] on our numbers. But it is a very good program, and we support it. It is very good, especially for the smaller growers in the state."

(For more on Michigan produce, see the July 12, 2010, issue of The Produce News.)