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FPFC panel tackles inflation, trends and hot products

By
Tim Linden

Dealing with inflation, following trends and predicting the hot produce categories for 2023 were a few of the topics covered by a diverse panel of industry representatives during a Fresh Produce & Floral Council luncheon meeting in Northern California on Wednesday, Jan. 18.

More than 200 people attended the Pleasanton, CA, event and listened to the presentation, which was moderated by Lori Taylor, founder and CEO of The Produce Moms, a group “on a mission to put more fruits and vegetables on every table to change the way America eats” through its platforms and produce supplier partnerships.

Prior to the panel discussion, Taylor discussed her journey from wholesale produce sales person to founder of this advocacy organization. She noted the group of employees, that now number into the teens, are not influencers nor bloggers but rather educate consumers on the benefits of eating fresh produce, the growing process, and how to select, store and serve it through its various resources, with funding supplied by the produce community. She noted that more than half of its funding comes from partnerships with West Coast grower-shippers.

During her presentation, Taylor urged suppliers to protect their marketing budgets, arguing that the industry as a whole has a limited amount of money to spend and each individual marketer has an obligation “to be a good steward of those budget dollars.” She believes there is an obligation to use those dollars in a way to increase consumption and get more fruits and vegetables on the plate.

As a result she said each company should carefully vet the celebrity spokespeople and influencers that they work with to make sure they are not just peddling product but rather making a difference for the entire industry, and moving the consumption needle.

The panel discussion featured Senior Produce Buyer Daniel Bell of Grocery Outlet Inc.; Produce Category Manager Myisha Nathaniel of Raley’s Supermarkets; Alex Jackson, director of sales and procurement at Frieda’s Branded Produce; and Marketing Manager Marissa Ritter of Naturipe Farms.

First question for the panel delved into how closely each company follows food trend reports in helping to determine product lines and promotional opportunities. The consensus was that following all the new year trend reports that list what’s hot and what’s not for the coming year is of some interest but not game changing.

“Don’t take trends too seriously,” said Jackson, relaying that the late Frieda Caplan, founder of the company, never put too much stock in those annual predictions.  However, Jackson said the company does look at macro trends and calls attention to the products it has that dovetails to those consumer shifts. She mentioned that an uptick in Asian cuisines, for example, does give the company the opportunity to emphasize some of its specialty products that speak to that movement.

Nathaniel noted that there are some social media posts that are very popular and it behooves the company to know what its customers are looking at and lean into that if possible. For example, she said the feta pasta recipe that went viral on TikTok over the last year or two caught the imagination of the consumer and it made marketing sense for Raley’s to bring those ingredients together (including cherry tomatoes) in one display. And then to help educate their consumers and increase the ring, the retailer could add wine suggestions that pair well with the dish. Nathaniel added that cookbooks are a thing of the past with most shoppers relying on the internet for food recipes.

As a discount retailer, Bell said Grocery Outlet has limited space and limited SKUs so it intentionally does not get out in front of these predictions. It waits for a fad to turn into a trend and then it will look at the products touted and try to get them into the stores that are right for them. He reminded that each Grocery Outlet store is owned by an individual grocer who maintains a lot of control over the product mix.

Talking specifically about what’s hot in the retail produce department, Nathaniel said plant-based foods are not quite as popular as they were a year ago, but still have a lot of room for growth. She said the trend has opportunities throughout the entire store and Raley’s is paying attention to it and marketing new plant-based alternatives for meat and cheese, for example.

Bell said the “grab and go” category continues to give opportunities in the produce department as consumers are still looking for convenient options. He said this category is helping to drive increased produce consumption.

Ritter noted that her company is touting a new line — Naturipe Snack Berry Parfaits — that speaks specifically to this trend. Each product contains separate packs of granola, yogurt and fresh berries to be combined by the consumer as a quick, easy, nutritious and fresh dish.

Taylor added that this creation of branded products in the produce department is a great idea as 85 percent of the internet followers of TheProduceMoms.com report that they are more familiar with produce brands than ever before. She said more branded produce items will increase produce sales and consumption by giving consumers a trusted name in which to try something new.

Jackson reported on Frieda’s new name which incorporates “Branded Produce” into its title.  She said Frieda’s was the first company to brand product in the produce department and continues to use that concept, which was part of its beginnings. She added that the company is a B to B business but markets its products directly to consumers with its value-added packaging touting its company name and educational information when possible.

On the subject of inflation, Ritter said Naturipe is being very careful with its pricing as it understands consumers today are very price sensitive. She did note that in the produce category, the price is set by the market not the manufacturer. But to help consumers looking to stretch their food dollar by cooking at home, Naturipe is creating more recipes than ever before and trying to put them in the hands of shoppers.

Nathaniel said Raley’s continues to offer discounts under its “buy more, save more” program and she also said the company is building displays that show customers how they can create a home-cooked meal for their families for under $20.

Bell said it is very difficult in these inflationary times to hold the line on retail pricing but the company is doing it every day “juggling pricing and making margins where we can.”

In other topics of interest discussed during the hour-long panel session, Nathaniel noted that sampling is back after a couple year hiatus because of the pandemic. Bell added that customers are clearly comfortable buying bulk again. He did mention, however, that clean-looking packaging that tells a story is a great sales tool.

Speaking of organics, both retail representatives said it is still a hot trend with sales continuing to increase.  Grocery Outlet has its NOSH (Natural, Organic, Specialty, Healthy) section in almost of its stores and it is a thriving category. Bell added that the discount retailer is handicapped by the fact that its format does not allow it to sell bulk organic product but it is still “a growing part of our business.”

Nathaniel said that leaning into organics is part of the company’s core philosophy. In fact, the chain continues to increase outlets of its Raley’s O-N-E Market brand, which emphasizes organics, nutrition and education.

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