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Got Produce? Increasing Consumption One Item At A Time:In Search Of Product Innovations

All the time and attention paid to the proposal to introduce a generic promotion board to the fresh produce industry won’t be wasted if it leads to a new focus on increasing consumption.

In our piece, Got Produce? Next Move Is To Push For School Salad Bars, we pointed to a policy approach, in this case spearheaded by United Fresh, to increase consumption by getting a salad bar in every school.

Private companies, though, play an important role in increasing consumption and so here at the Pundit we thought we would mention three examples of products that have helped us personally boost consumption and also raise concerns with another type of presentation that has the potential to depress consumption.

During late hours producing this Pundit, we snack more than we should. But instead of pretzels we now keep a package of sweet mini peppers shipped by Bionova Produce under the Masters Touch label — or, as the label also says, presumably with Quebec in mind, Doux Sur la Plante Piments Miniatures.

Perhaps other companies make a similar product; this is the one we mostly see sold at both Costco and Publix near Pundit headquarters in Boca Raton, Florida. It is a great example of how supply creates demand. The mere existence of this little snack pack has more than doubled our weekly consumption of peppers.

We are also big fans of mango and, though cutting mangos is fine at home, in our office fridge we prefer something peeled and cut. Publix sells a fresh sliced mango product under the “Incredible Fresh” brand. This product is produced by Fruit Dynamics LLC which does business as Incredible Fresh. The mango is neat and easy to eat. Sure, at home we might select a softer, juicier, riper mango than works in this fresh-cut operation, but it is tasty and consistently delivers the same product, and the convenience has easily caused us to double mango consumption.

We also always keep a bag of “Fresh Trimmed Brussels Sprouts” in the office refrigerator. The label explains they are packaged in state-of-the-art, stay-fresh microbags and are distributed by the Los Angeles Salad Company — the same company we wrote about in less happy times here. You cut a corner of the 8-ounce bag, put it in the microwave for 3-1/2 minutes and it is ready to eat. A nutritious and to us, at least, delicious, snack.

Once in a while we order Brussels Sprouts at a restaurant and, in fact, it seems that they are a hot item right now in trendy foodservice establishments. Yet we never once purchased them to cook at home. Now this quick and convenient package has caused us to easily increase ten-fold the quantity of Brussels Sprouts we consume in a year.

Of course, not all packaging and processing boosts consumption. Sometimes it can have the opposite effect.

Publix sells bowls of fresh-cut melon, typically cantaloupe, honeydew and watermelon. Now it is always difficult to select a sweet whole melon from the shelves and, doubtless, this inability to ensure a tasty experience each and every time depresses melon sales. Still, as a sealed product of nature, we tend to cut our local supermarket some slack.

However, when we buy the fresh-cut honeydew, for example, and it is sweet one day and tasteless the next, we suspect consumers tend to blame the store. After all, this product was cut open, it could have been tested for brix levels or tasted by a melon El Exigente. It seems to us that a strong argument can be made that every one of these fresh-cut melon bowls should consistently provide tasty fruit.

Food manufacturers just don’t put bad tasting food in their packaging — it is not 100% clear that produce processors should either. If we sell tasteless produce we will never build up the consumer perception that consumers can rely on a brand or store’s fresh-cut melon.

At very least, if we want to keep availability year-round but the flavor profile at certain times won’t meet sweet standards, we should, surely, advise consumers of what they are getting.

Dole introduced recently a line of fresh-cut salads and one of its innovations was to include on the packaging a guide that advises the consumer where that particular salad ranks on a range of textures and a range of flavors.

If we are going to sell products that are variable in sweetness throughout the year, we ought to try to advise consumers of what they are getting. In the short term, this may reduce sales but it would increase consumer satisfaction and that will lead to higher sales.

We’ve been focused on issues of flavor for a long time. At one point, we even mentioned Wal-Mart by name and urged Wal-Mart to take the lead in presenting consistently good-tasting produce. That was back in the Bruce Peterson days and he had the Pundit fly down to Bentonville to discuss it — but it was always just a little too problematic to implement.

In any case, the point here, one we have made before, is that the industry cannot increase consumption in general without increasing consumption of particular items.

One of the points Rick Antle, CEO at Tanimura & Antle, emphasized during his participation at the “Town Hall” meeting held to discuss the generic promotion proposal during PMA was that when you have widely diversified products that have widely varying margins, uniform promotional efforts are difficult to pull off and may not make much sense.

However, efforts such as those we have recorded here — to market a sweet mini pepper snack pack, a fresh-cut mango, a microwaveable package of Brussels Sprouts and, perhaps, to find a way to communicate to consumers the sweetness of the melon chunks — all point to how wildly divergent efforts can all boost consumption.

Now we didn’t do a study of consumption-boosting products, and we are sure that there are many more out there. It is also probable that others around the country are producing similar products to some of those we highlighted and we just happened to mention brands and shippers whose product is being sold at Publix near Pundit headquarters.

We think that the industry role in boosting consumption is likely to come from innovative products and concept such as we have discussed in this piece.

To encourage the industry in this direction the Pundit is going to give out an annual prize for product innovation that is likely to boost consumption.

We think it appropriate to name this award after our friend, Joe Nucci, who died at age 40 as President and CEO of Mann Packing. Joe, as we wrote here, was on vacation with his family and the Pundit and his family at Walt Disney World when he passed away.

Joe was secretary-treasurer at PMA and on the rotation to become Chairman. He was also known as an industry innovator and as the “father” of broccoli coleslaw.

So each year we will present the “Joe Nucci Award for Product Innovation in Service of Expanding Consumption of Fresh Fruits & Vegetables” to the product judged to be most likely to increase consumption of a given item through product, packaging and marketing innovation.

Entries for the 2009 award will be accepted through February 1, 2010, but if you are ready, you can download the entry form here.

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