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Heading into spring, Rene Simon, director of the Baton Rouge, LA-based Louisiana Sweet Potato Commission, wants people to know that Louisiana still has an excellent supply of fresh sweet potatoes.28

“We still have a good supply, which should carry us into the summer months,” he said. “Movements have been a little slower. This time of year, we usually do see some dip in demand, but we do know that there’s a large supply of sweet potatoes out there, not just from Louisiana but other states as well, so that’s putting some downward pressure on prices right now.”

The lower prices aren’t the only challenge to Louisiana sweet potato farmers these days.

“A lot of people are having trouble with transportation and trucking; it’s more expensive than ever,” Simon said. “Our growers are facing those pressures. That’s impacting almost everyone.”

This year, the state will have about 10,000 acres of sweet potatoes, similar to the last few years. Louisiana for the most part had an average crop in 2017, though Simon noted some of its growers had an exceptional crop.

“It depended on when they were harvesting,” he said. “We had some wet weather during the fall, so the growers who farmed the central part of the state were more impacted than other growers as far as adverse weather.”

Many of the growers are bringing new varieties on line. For instance, Bayou Bell, more of a processor sweet potato for the French fry market, has really caught on. Plus Louisiana State University is doing a lot of research on the latest techniques for raising a better crop, and the growers are taking advantage of their findings.

“One of the things they are concentrating on at LSU is how sweet potatoes can handle a wetter growing season, rather than just rotting in the field,” Simon said. “A lot of effort is going into that and cultural methods.”

This time of year, Simon suggests retailers play up the importance of sweet potatoes in a seafood boil, an Easter dish or for the grill.

“Sweet potatoes are excellent if you put a little olive oil on them or maybe some rosemary or pepper and grill them,” he said. “It makes a great presentation and you see those burn marks, like you would on a steak.”

In store, pairing sweet potatoes with another product, such as corn, some type of seasoning or charcoal, could help retailers remind consumers of these ideas.

Although still about 10 months away, the United States Sweet Potato Council’s annual meeting will be held in New Orleans from Jan. 20-23, and registration will start in June.

“We are in the planning stages now,” Simon said. “We met with visitor’s bureau to have a full agenda for all who will be participating that will highlight the best of Louisiana and New Orleans. We like to have a good time here and want to show them a real fun time.”

The National Association of Perishable Agricultural Receivers (NAPAR) Chairman Matthew D’Arrigo of D’Arrigo Bros. Co. of New York announced the creation of a partnership between NAPAR and Topco Associates LLC, one of the largest food industry buying cooperatives in the United States. The partnership allows NAPAR members to purchase not-for-resale supplies through Topco’s Indirect Spend program, which utilizes the collective buying power of Topco’s food industry wholesale and retail members. This collective buying power should produce significant savings for NAPAR’s members.NAPAR-Logo

“This is a great opportunity for NAPAR’s produce wholesaler-receiver members,” D’Arrigo said. “For those who participate, Topco’s collective buying power will provide NAPAR members with significant savings on everything they use to run their businesses, from forklifts and jacks to shrink wrap and corrugated, and from trucks and tires to refrigeration equipment. This partnership will push more to their bottom lines and make them more competitive.”

NAPAR members can save by participating in national contracts that have been negotiated by Topco for its members. In many cases they will purchase the same brand names from the same suppliers at substantial savings. “Topco will make NAPAR members more competitive and more successful,” D’Arrigo said.

NAPAR is the only national produce association dedicated exclusively to produce wholesalers and receivers. With NAPAR, produce wholesalers and receivers come first, and this partnership with Topco will create a new, exclusive service for its members, D’Arrigo added.

There are two key elements that connect a customer with fruits and vegetables in the produce department — the eyes and the stomach.

Through experimentation, a psychologist once revealed that 83 percent of information is captured from sight. Whatever the eyes observe is fixed in the memory of a person’s brain. So, if a customer sees an eye-catching produce department it may attract them to it by sight alone.Broccoli-is-the-focal-point-of-the-visual-merchandising-connection

Just before entering a produce department, customers see everything from a distance. From that point, all the colorful items appear fresh and inviting. But how will shoppers react if they find those same items are not as fresh as appeared from that faraway view?

Much of the presentation and appearance that takes place in the produce department is visual merchandising connection. It’s simply catching the customers’ attention and drawing them over to a display’s focal point to make purchases. They enter, observe, become captivated, connect and are beckoned over to a particular section or display.

The visual merchandising connection is the produce department’s silent communication system. It reaches out to the customers’ eyes sending them a colorful and attractive presentation. That visual imagery becomes a mental appetite of hunger and taste, which hopefully triggers a desire to buy the product.

Observing produce from a distance is one thing. Getting close and picking it up determines whether to make a purchase or not. Anything can look fresh and wholesome from afar, but touching it will reveal its true identity. Seeing and connecting to it opens the door. But if the product is old and wilted, the door immediately slams shut. The positive, colorful mental image suddenly explodes into a grayish negative.

There are signature hot sections throughout the produce department. Many of them are the visual merchandising connectors. The first to be observed is often located in the store lobby as customers enter. The primary attraction is at the entrance area of the produce department. This location must act quickly in capturing the eyes of shoppers in making an immediate connection. It’s all about the display visual that sells the product and grabs that sale even before the customer gets into the produce department.

Here are the main components of a visual merchandising connection:

  • Color — Fruits and vegetables certainly have the chromatic intensity in drawing eyes to it. Use the various contrasts to send a picture of art to shoppers. Red, orange and yellow are “catch colors.”
  • Focal point — Design your signature hot sections in a way that the customers’ eyes are focusing on a specific location. An example is a colorful dramatic pepper display.
  • Decor — Accessories such as designer baskets, crates and barrels are used to create a visual merchandising draw. It adds creative artistry to the display and turns it into an attention grabber.
  • Simplicity — If the visual hot section is a free standing display or a table endcap, prevent clutter all around it. Overcrowded displays can confuse the main focal point of the customer. Additional items can be tied in, but not to the extent that it turns the eyes away from the center of the visual connection.

Visual merchandising is a psychology. Your main objective is always to get shoppers to connect with specific items on display. Zero in on specific signature hot sections and lure the eyes directly over to the central focal point. Once a customer is captivated and drawn to those displays, make absolutely sure the product is fresh, in top condition, and of superior quality.

Remember, what customers see in your produce department is what they will get.

Fueled by significant gains in both value-added products and organic fruits and vegetables, California produce sales rose to more than $7.3 billion in sales in 2017.IMG 0065

While bulk items and conventional produce still deliver more revenue, over the last four years fixed weight packages and organic produce have accounted for the lion’s share of growth. Those are two big takeaways from an analysis of the past five years of the Fresh Produce & Floral Council Market Report prepared by Fusion Marketing.

More than a half-dozen years ago, the FPFC began contracting with the Chatsworth, CA-based marketing and sales solutions firm, which specializes in the fresh produce industry. Each quarter, Fusion uses scan data to analyze retail produce department sales in four of California’s top markets as well as the state as a whole. The markets analyzed are San Francisco, Sacramento, Los Angeles and San Diego. The FPFC offers this data as a member benefit with the main goal of helping its members — whether they be retailers or suppliers — gauge their own sales against the industry at large within their main region.

During a recent webinar comparing California retail produce sales data from the end of 2013 through 2017, Fusion President Steven Muro said it is that comparison that allows a company to more accurately assess its own performance. He noted that a Los Angeles-based retailer might think they did well in 2017 with a 3 percent increase in sales. However, Los Angeles had a retail produce growth rate of 4 percent in 2017, so a retailer below that under-indexed.

The numbers presented by Fusion showed that California retail produce sales totaled $6.1 billion in 2013. The 2017 number of $7.3 billion represents a 19 percent growth in that four-year period.

Where did that growth come from? It largely came from increased sales prices of the product sold as price per pound increased 16 percent. Yet that only tells part of the story. The per unit price increased because consumers bought more organic produce and more value-added items — two categories that almost always have a higher retail ring than their conventional or bulk item counterparts.

During those four years, the organic produce share of produce department sales rose from 7 to 11 percent. So, while conventional produce still accounted for 89 percent of sales in 2017, those sales accrued at an average price per pound of $1.55. The 11 percent of organic produce sales came in at an average of $2.91 per pound. Consequently, “organic produce contributed 27 percent of the dollar growth, despite contributing just 11 percent of overall category dollars,” according to the report.

There has been a decrease in the price differential though between organic and conventional produce over the last four years. In fact, average per pound price of organics actually dropped five cents in 2017 to $2.91, while the conventional price per pound rose to $1.55, a 20 cent per pound increase in the last four years.

In 2017, the numbers show that of the $1.2 billion in produce sales growth from 2013, conventional produce accounted for $846 million while organic produce accounted for $315 million in growth.

A similar correlation can be made when analyzing fixed vs. random weight dollar share of total produce sales from 2013 to 2017.

Comparing 2017 with 2013, fixed weight sales are up 30 percent and account for 44 percent of produce department sales. That represents a 4 percent increase in market share. During that same time period random weight produce contributed a majority of sales at 56 percent of category sales, but 2017 sales were only 12 percent greater than 2013. Fixed weight produce contributed 64 percent of total dollar gains while random weight items contributed only 36 percent of the growth compared to 56 percent of sales.

On a per unit basis, fixed weight items sell for an average of $2.28 per pound at California retail operations while random weight items check in at $1.33 per pound.

Muro said if you are trying to drive produce department sales, it might be a good time to add more fixed weight items to the mix as that gap continues to grow. In 2013, fixed weight items averaged $1.97 per pound, which was 79 cents more per pound than random weight products. By 2017, the gap had grown to 95 cents per pound as the retail price of fixed weight items were up 15 percent while random weight items were only up 13 percent.

FPFC President Carissa Mace said that while the data has been collected since 2011, the webinars are relatively new. “The goal is to give the members some ideas as to how to use the data and make sense of it,” she said.

Greener Fields Together has partnered with agriculture industry consultants Measure to Improve LLC to launch a sustainability program aimed to reduce waste across the supply chain. Ten of PRO*ACT’s top suppliers have currently signed the Waste Reduction Pledge to dramatically reduce waste sent to landfill from their facilities.

Anne Nichols, sustainability manager for PRO*ACT USA, based in Monterey, CA, said that waste reduction is something that plagues the industry and costs a lot of money. In fact, the EPA estimates that 254 million tons of waste per year is generated, while only 34 percent is actually composted or recycled. Those numbers are even worse when looking specifically at the food industry.

“Before launching the Waste Reduction Pledge Program, Greener Fields Together worked with our national farm partners by providing one-on-one case studies and offering a platform where suppliers could enter metrics on their energy, water and waste,” Nichols said. “Over the three years of collecting the data, we realized that it was very difficult to analyze the information, and therefore we couldn’t draw any real conclusion. Ultimately, we felt that the information that was collected was not verifiable and it was delivered in too many formats to be useful.”

The survey was also burdensome and tedious for PRO*ACT’s suppliers, who are often required to fill out lengthy sustainability surveys for large retail customers, such as Walmart. This new approach aims at providing resources to help them track and verify their waste output by month, and offers them tools to divert waste from the landfill.

“The overarching goal is to create continuous improvement in sustainability throughout the fresh produce supply chain,” Nichols said. “We understand that sustainability is ever changing and what may work today won’t work tomorrow, which is why this is an ongoing and multi-phase project. Currently in phase 1, we are focusing on our suppliers, and phase 2 will focus on diverting and decreasing waste at our purveyors. Finally, this will be disseminated to our customers for phase 3.”

PRO*ACT sits in a unique spot within the supply chain, allowing the company to work closely with suppliers, purveyors and customers.

“Our commitment to sustainability through the Greener Fields Together program means we are working toward minimizing the environmental impact of our supply chain,” Nichols said. “We believe the best way to do this is to become a resource center for our partners to help drive change at their own facilities.”

The 10 suppliers who have pledged, also called the National Farm Partners (NFPs), will be working toward different targets for waste diversion depending on what pledge level they chose.

“All NFPs are required to create a green team and connect and analyze their waste data. As the pledge levels progress, the NFP is responsible for more actionable items, such as assessing their material streams, examining purchasing processes, verifying hazardous waste management and compliance and finally becoming third-party certified,” Nichols said. “We offered different levels of pledges in order to not dissuade anyone from participating in case they had never targeted their waste stream before.”

Being an experimental program, there are no perceived expectations on what the results will be, but all involved believe it will be a great learning experience and should accomplish a great deal.

“While we are a national sustainability program working towards this goal, it takes our entire community to make a change,” Nichols said. “Often times, sustainability and the state of our environment may seem cataclysmic and daunting to tackle, but we are so hopeful for the future. With the Waste Reduction Pledge Program, we believe we are planting the seed to make real change.”