What prompts shoppers to buy grapes? More specifically, what prompts high-end shoppers to buy grapes? In southern California, each of the 27 locations of Gelson’s Markets is singularly known as among the area’s very best markets for superior produce.
At the 2022 Global Grape Summit in Bakersfield, California, Paul Kneeland, vice president, fresh operations at Gelson’s Markets, will discuss high-end retailing, the chain’s discerning customers, and what that means for the grape category.
Kneeland is a veteran retail professional with experience at Boston-area retailer Roche Bros. Supermarkets, Kings Super Markets in the greater New York City area, and Ahold’s Fresh Formats, before joining Gelson’s in 2017. Founded in 1951, Gelson’s high standards — for quality, value and freshness; unsurpassed service; and attention to detail — define the ultimate grocery shopping experience. Each Gelson’s Market is designed to feature the full amenities of a traditional supermarket, with the local flavor of a neighborhood market.
We asked Susan Crowell, Contributing Editor at Pundit sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS, to chat with Paul prior to the Summit, to offer a sneak preview of his remarks.
Vice President Fresh Operations
Q. OK, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty: What will you be sharing at the Global Grape Summit?
A. I want to address the grape category, coming from a high-end retailer. What is our perspective on the varieties that we choose to carry, from conventional, to varietals, and organics? How do we select our assortment, based on customer demand? And then, what is the importance of the category — its importance overall to the produce department, such as the percentage of sales, trends and where it stands.
The importance of grapes to the food category as a whole helps us make merchandising decisions; and then, I will discuss the importance of the category overall to the store — and what are the effects on the basket. What happens to our customer basket when there are conventional grapes in the basket; what happens when there are varietal grapes in the basket and what happens when there are organic grapes in the basket?
I also want to look at the trends of the grape category lately. It’s hard to kind of measure during COVID, so I’ll just look at where it is for this year as a comparison to last year, and maybe to 2018 as just a trendline.
I’ll also be looking at merchandising — where do we place the product in the store, and what items do we highlight, in addition to how we cross-merchandise, or what are the things that we add to the category that sells both grapes and other items. For example, cheese is kind of a simple one.
Q. So can you talk a little bit about how you select items in the grape category for your discerning customer?
A. Our customers live on the high end. They’re typically high income, very knowledgeable and have access to information, and they gather that information very quickly. They are interested in everything, by the way. So, when you look at POS material, for example, in some places it’s a lot of information. Someone like me would probably not stand there and read it, but our customers do. They’re very learned and like to learn more information.
We like to learn from them, too — and they’ll tell us really what they want. For example, on the grape category, before the season starts on Cotton Candy grapes, our customers will be asking the stores when those grapes will come in. They know the time of year that Cotton Candy grapes come in, and they’re asking for them ahead of time, Then, when the grapes come in, that varietal leads the category.
Q. So how do you keep abreast of trends for these learned customers?
A. Gelson’s has been known for finding varietals and new products first, and I can give you an example outside the category, in apples. Gelson’s was one of the first to have Envy apples in California, and now we’re known for them and have built these enormous displays. Same thing for Cotton Candy grapes. We were one of the primary retailers to bring them in, and now customers ask for them. So, when there are new varietals, we tend to grab some first, and try them here. The buyers and I willtaste them, take them home and get feedback from families, and come back and make a decision. It’s not very scientific, but it comes back to your base for selling anything: It’s got to taste good for someone to come back and buy it again.
Q. Is there anything new that has passed your ‘scientific’ taste test?
A. The most recent ones were some of the Witch Finger grapes, the Jelly Drop grapes — these were some of the really sweet varieties we have tried. They still aren’t quite at the Cotton Candy level — we’re always trying to find the next Cotton Candy grape. It’s been a challenge, but we do try some of the other varieties.
When you look at doing that, you have to do it strategically, because if you over-assort the category, people get confused. If a customer comes into the store and looks at a great display, but there are 15 types of grapes, they’re going to say, “I’m just going to go to what I know is best.” But if we highlight one that we want people to try, and then have less than a half a dozen others displayed, it makes it easier from a customer decision tree.
Q. How are you determining the split of conventional and the varietals and the organics within the category?
A. At the Summit, I’ll have the numbers, the percentage each of the subcategories of the total. You look at those from a go-to-market standpoint, and you look at the overall department, or even the overall store. Right now, at Gelson’s, about 30% of our produce sales are organic, so you look at the grape category numbers and consider if you index at that, or over-index or under-index, and then why? We do the same with the varietals and our specialty produce numbers, and we see where we index versus the entire department. So, at the Summit, I’ll report on the overall effect of the category to the entire department and the effects on the basket of each of the subcategories.
Q. COVID skewed things, as far as being able to track a five-year trend, but looking at 2021 over 2020, or 2022 over 2021, what have you been experiencing in the category?
A. The grape category had actually been trending down, prior to COVID, and right now, year over year, 2022 versus 2021, January through July, we’re looking at double-digit positive trends in the grape category. We’re looking at +13%, which is over-indexing to the department.
Q. Why do you think the grape category was trending down prior to COVID?
A. I think we over-assorted it and put too many items in there. Between bags and clamshells and sizes and varieties, I think people just got confused. Which raises another factor that I’ll bring to the Summit conversation, and that’s how do we promote and what’s the frequency of promotion — commodity vs. branded. And how do we position it in the consumer’s mind — is it a snacking thing, is it a side, an ingredient — and how do we use that as an ingredient across the store, too.
Q. It sounds like you’ll have some valuable retail insight for those attending the Summit.
A. I’m putting the numbers together now, and will have them at the Summit, but I’ll use them to illustrate how we choose assortment, and then how do we position the category from a merchandising/promotional standpoint? What’s interesting to me is how it builds the basket or doesn’t, and I don’t know those latest numbers yet, but I think it’s going to be a positive story. I’ll be able to share the things Gelson’s is looking for that will help us build the category and position Gelson’s as the place to go for grapes.
As a high-end retailer, the top thing I would ask from growers is quality. I don’t want to be general, but it’s quality. And help me help you tell the story. I want our customers to know about your grapes. That’s the way we sell more — we’re interested when it has a compelling story.
On seasonal varieties, it’s more a sense of urgency, which is very interesting because just about everything else in the produce department doesn’t have a season anymore. So, I think the seasonality and urgency to buy in a limited window is exciting for people. And isn’t that the goal? How do we make this category exciting for our customers?
I can tell you how we do it at Gelson’s, but I think any retailer would ask, ’how can you help?’
It’s not going back to selling 99 cents-a-pound grapes. This is something of the past, and I don’t think we’ll ever get back to that — not in my world anyway.
Paul has a unique perspective having run produce at high-end retailers on both the East and West Coasts.
In addition, because Paul has been an unusually civic-minded executive, we were honored when Paul asked us to keynote the first ever New England Produce Council Expo, and we worked closely when Paul chaired the Expo Committee of the Eastern Produce Council as we launched The New York Produce Show and Conference.
We have always found value in talking about innovation with Paul because he has worked with retailers large enough to make a difference but small enough to handle product introductions. If you run produce for Walmart or Kroger, you need to be focused on things that can be handled logistically and in quantity across thousands of stores, but if there is a new variety or a new taste being trailed, Paul has the kind of customer and the volume of stores just right for that introduction.
Paul will be presenting a lot of important data at the Summit, but what we think is most dramatic is this point: Even among high income, high education level, high engagement level consumers — and Gelson’s way over-indexes on these metrics — consumers cannot absorb information about the many new varieties that have been exploding across the world of grapes.
This was the line that most resonated: “…if you over-assort the category, people get confused. If a customer comes into the store and looks at a great display, but there are 15 types of grapes, they are going to say, ‘I’m just going to go to what I know is best.’ But if we highlight one that we want people to try, and then have less than a half a dozen others displayed, it makes it easier from a customer decision tree.”
This is great conundrum of the category. With the enormous varietal assortment — and it is growing every day — how will even retailers, much less consumers, come to appreciate the difference between these varieties?
The reference to Cotton Candy is instructive, because that is a product identified and marketed as having not “better” characteristics but “distinctive” characteristics. And it is that market positioning that wins it a spot on the shelves and in the consumer basket.
Please join us at The Global Grape Summit as we explore consumer behavior as it relates to grapes and grape varieties. Looking at the upscale consumer, one less constrained by price, is an important way of gaining into insight as to what consumers really want and value.
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Come join us in this exploration of consumer behavior as we look to find ways to increase sales and consumption of table grapes.