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ICA’s Maria Wieloch Headlines Educational Seminar At London Produce Show; Talks About Halloween, Easter And How To Lift Produce Consumption 

Maria Wieloch has graced many of our events with her presence. Some of her sessions have been memorialized in pieces such as these:

Global Trade Symposium Welcomes Maria Wieloch, Who Will Give Insights On Produce Category Management At ICA Sweden

2018 London Produce Show’s Thought-Leader Breakfast Features All-Star Cast of Industry Luminaries

Lessons from Sweden: Leading food retailer steps up sustainability initiatives

London Produce Show: ICA scoops international award for marketing produce to kids

When we heard she would join us at The London Produce Show and Conference, we asked Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to get a sneak preview of her presentation’s focus this year:

Maria Wieloch
Senior Category Manager
Fruit, Vegetabes and Flowers
ICA Sverige AB

Q: It was wonderful seeing you in New York, and look forward to reuniting in London for LPS19. We’re honored you’ll be doing another educational session, especially since ICA Sweden won the International Award for Marketing Fresh Produce to Children at LPS18. [Jim Prevor presented the annual award to Maria with Tim Heddema of the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in London, which sponsored the award. ICA was recognized for its imaginative initiative over the Halloween period, where it launched a line of monster-themed fruits and vegetables with notable sales results and great media buzz].

What’s happened subsequently? Could you give attendees a “sneak preview” of ICA’s latest initiatives to increase produce consumption and the challenges involved?

A: Thank you again for letting me be a part of The New York Produce Show and soon the LPS19! The honor is mine, and I look forward to the event. My talk will extend what I did in America. The crowd in London will be a little different, so it will be more European-focused.

I will talk about how you can increase sales by doing different campaigns that are limited in size. We have Halloween, of course, as our main example, but we also had a very nice effect with fruit sales tied to the football soccer cup in Europe, and we’ll be repeating the campaign this year, since we now have the women’s tournament in Europe.

I will also share what we’ve been doing with the Pink Ribbon campaign, which you have in the U.S. as well. We can increase sales by changing the design but also donate to a good cause; get people to choose the tomatoes that are in that design and in that donation instead of choosing another tomato, and by that you steer the sales.  

Q: In that instance, does steering sales translate to increased sales or just redistribution of the items that consumers are purchasing? Are you able to measure short-term and long-term effects on produce department sales of your different campaigns?

A: That’s an excellent question and complicated to answer. I’ll discuss what we are doing at ICA, including holiday- and category-focused campaigns, and the varying impacts, show data and sales figures, and how the campaigns look in the stores. I always say if doesn’t happen in store, it doesn’t happen at all. We can have all these nice plans but when you come into the store, you need to see and feel the campaign that is going on.

Q: Do you find store-wide campaigns and holiday- and category-specific ones in the produce department can foster competing loyalties for consumer purchases?

A: With regards to campaigns, we have our central partners, so we collaborate with the Red Cross and the Cancer Society, and those are partners for ICA, not just fruit and veg. That’s something where we want to target fruit and veg, but it’s part of a bigger machinery, so the campaign is throughout the store. Especially for the Pink Ribbon campaign, the whole store is almost turning pink in the month of October.

When it comes to Halloween, that was more an idea to drive our single purpose, which is to increase produce consumption, because everything we’re doing now is related to that. There’s a lot to be done until we reach our 500 grams a day. It’s currently at 160 grams a day. We’re kind of stuck at 160 grams; it’s not really moving up as quick as we want it to.

We have central campaigns linked to bigger strategies, and produce-specific ones, more targeted to kids, finding ways to get them excited about fruit and veg and about trying new things. These may be short-term focusing on the here and now, but with underlying growth in consumption of fruit and vegetables. That’s why we do it.

Q: On the store-wide campaigns, how important a role does produce play? Do you find it harder when the campaign runs through the whole store?

A: Actually, produce is a driver in these campaigns because, first of all, we have very dedicated produce personnel. They like when there is something happening, so they kind of go all in.

We have 1,300 stores, so not everybody, but the great majority are really engaged, using the campaign material and the product to do nice expos. In many stores, the produce department is at the front of the store and sets the feel for the campaign.

When there is a contribution campaign, we normally outperform or exceed what we’re expected to sell, and when you look at the produce department, we are almost always in the top three departments having a bigger increase on the campaign compared to normal performances.

We have the advantage of having nice colors and nice fresh produce to work with, even though we often package these things, and bigger flexibility on merchandising than in meats and dairy, for instance.

Q: In what ways?

A: All our stores have these expo areas for seasonal items or products they want to showcase. It’s a very flexible area they can use in most of the departments to highlight some of the products in the campaign for a good effect, then incorporate the connected materials.

It may be a bit harder to do that in other departments where products are quite set in place. I find even if these other departments rebrand as part of the campaign, the product still has its normal positioning. There’s a bigger possibility with produce to build up your market area.

Q: How much influence do you have over the individual stores? Is there consistency across the chain? How does it work with store autonomy? Is everyone left to do their own thing? Is there a system in place to share ideas, compare what worked, what didn’t? Do you measure individual results, etc.?

A: All the ICA stores are privately owned. We’re not an integrated chain; we just serve them the possibilities and then they choose themselves how they want to use them. We supply them with an assortment, the conceptual idea, materials, but then in the end, it’s always up to the store owner and his department personnel to decide whether they want to go with it.

We have an experienced crew here to inspire the stores. It’s up to them to make it happen, but we have to do a good job and come up with the right thing. We get feedback, and if it doesn’t sell we take it out. I believe we cannot keep doing the wrong thing for more than one year without changing course.

We have a dynamic Facebook site, and department managers are connected to share information and post pictures of their departments to trigger each other, and say, ‘oh this is what I did for Halloween, and this is what I did…’ It’s a very nice community.

Q: Could you expound on why certain campaigns, like Halloween, take off, while others hit snags, and where you’ve gained valuable lessons for the future?

A: A very good example is where we have quite similar campaigns, yet the results are quite different. We started targeting kids with our Halloween campaign to great success. The next holiday facing the same issue with kids and sweets is Easter, a big holiday in Sweden. So, we said, ‘Let’s do the same thing we did for Halloween. Let’s do an inspiring design and try to get kids to have more vegetables in their Easter eggs from the Easter bunny. But when we tried that, for the first year it was not really kicking off. Ok, let’s do it another year, so we just did it this year.

Q: Did your persistence pay off? Why or why not?

A: Halloween is quite a new holiday in Sweden, so we took on that holiday and now kind of own it. Easter is a holiday that’s been here a very long time. Other food is a big part of the holiday, so it’s difficult to get the media attention we wanted. Even though we are turning to children, there is a lot of other produce that’s in season that must take its place in the store.

We concluded, ‘OK, we had a really good thing going here targeting kids and wanting to increase consumption, but there are too many other things competing in the campaign and other products in promotional leaflets for people’s Easter tables.’

We’re still thinking about how we can get kids to consume more fruit and veg, even though we couldn’t do it that way at Easter.

Q: What were the key products competing for attention in your kid-targeted Easter campaign? Were these produce items?

A: In the produce section, there are a lot of things people want to have on their Easter table that we need to allocate space for, like asparagus, for instance. You have a lot of cooking greens, because it’s a big cooking holiday in Sweden, a lot of herbs, like dill and chives, and onions. It’s also a new season in Europe, the beginning of the new harvest, where we sell items such as whole carrots with the green tops still on.

Q: Well, carrots (albeit kid-sized, minus the green tops), seem apropos with bunnies for an Easter promotion targeting children.

A: Yes, we have the mini carrots, and we did those, but it’s also hard to admit, we lost the battle for candy on this one, because it’s such a strong candy holiday also, like Halloween, but with Halloween, it’s only candy.

Then with Easter you have other foods that are big. Lamb is really big at Easter time, herring as well. It’s a food holiday where the kids eat sweets. We’re just thinking whether we should do a third year or if we should say it didn’t work out and move on.

Q: When you do your analysis, how does it work? What measurements do you undertake to determine if something’s effective or whether to do it again?

A: It’s hard to analyze… when we look at sales we’ll see quite good sales, because people still have to buy the produce that we rebranded, but maybe that’s not the main purpose we want to achieve. We want to actually increase the consumption and change the buying and eating patterns so the parents give their children more fruit and veg and less candy.

We see the engagement of the personnel in the stores when doing expos on Halloween. When we compare that to doing expos for Easter, there’s a huge difference. Just 10 to 15 stores posted on Facebook with expos of the Easter assortment, whereas with Halloween you have hundreds of pictures.

Q: What about the hard numbers?

A: We monitored the Facebook site, but we also get feedback from stores and personnel were saying this is not working. We had a good dialogue. You can always play with numbers and maybe get them to say what you want them to. It’s important when looking at results to understand the real underlying reasons for the increase. That’s why we rely on our relationships with store personnel. We listen to what they say because they are with the customers every day.

They are saying it’s a good cause, but it doesn’t really get the attention during this period; we really have to focus on the good volume items, especially because Easter is a huge holiday. They don’t have the ability to do designs like they do on Halloween. They just need to focus on getting their everyday volume products through.

Q: What is your plan going forward? Do you have other ideas in the pipeline?

A: We’re just now launching a campaign on stone fruit. We have our campaign assortment, which I’ll be talking about. We’re also doing something called an uplift, where we take a whole category and we really do a deep dive in the category — we’ve done it with citrus, apples and tomatoes so far.

We do product development, where we see how every product performs. And then we do a redesign and a communication package as well. And we’ve just done that for stone fruit. The whole stone fruit uplift is in our private label.

We did that all last year with citrus, and we’re now launching the uplift again with stone fruit, so I’ll be sharing that as well. Stone fruit is a big season coming up. In the summer time, you have stone fruit and melons as the weather heats up.

We see potential. We believe there is potential in increasing sales in stone fruit focused on nectarines and immense varieties of different apricots, donut size peaches, plums… if we want to increase consumption, we need to create excitement and change the perception of stone fruit.

Q: It’s interesting that you talk about changing consumer perceptions of a category… Is this part of a broader strategy to recalibrate consumer mindsets about produce?

A: It’s like doing a campaign but longer for a whole season, so we have a new design harmonizing all stone fruit, so you can recognize all stone fruit throughout the department. Also, it’s appealing to do expos when the packaging is in the same coloring, with integrated signs and so on.

We’re both broadening the product range, taking in some new items, and packaging it in a smart way, so it’s not just a nectarine, but what kind of a nectarine are you eating, what kind of apricot are you eating. This enables nice expos that make the department look good. We also provide a communication package with recipes and information on the different stone fruit that sits next to the products, and is going to be on our website, stone fruit school, for consumers who are really going all in.

Q: Are you doing any types of cross-merchandising?

A: No cross-merchandising. No, departments are really their own entities. The fruit and veg department rarely takes something from another department. That’s not in the business model unfortunately. That’s why recipes are really important because they provide another way of cross-merchandising, and getting customers interested in purchasing more items. If you have a recipe, of course, you have other food in the recipe, which inspires people to use stone fruit as part of that.

We need to show consumers ways to be more versatile in how stone fruit is consumed, as more than a stand-alone snack. You can have it in salads, on the barbeque, you can have it with cheese, burgers… getting consumption up by broadening the ways of using that fruit. Also, getting consumers to try different types of stone fruit, and discover the different tastes, to help move consumers towards their consumption of 500 grams a day.

We had a smaller fair for stone fruit, and I can show photos. It takes time to develop a concept like this, so this has been a strong focus for us, to do a good package now for the stores.

Q: Could we delve further into the Halloween campaign. What were the key factors that made it successful, contrasting the Easter campaign. And have you been able to sustain or grow the sales momentum of the first year? You had noted the campaign helped to notch an eight percent year-on-year increase in total produce sales over the period. How has the Halloween campaign evolved? What does the data reflect?

A: We had a good boost of sales with Halloween. It’s a stand-alone holiday in Sweden, it’s not connected to Thanksgiving or anything, compared to Easter. It leads its own life. Easter is a big established calendar holiday already. People have an Easter break with three days or so off work, and a lot connected to that. The assortment has bigger competition from other produce that is not in the concept, and other categories in food.

That’s the main reason it couldn’t get the attention it deserved. It’s not the fault of the people in the store because they had a lot of volume of produce they had to focus on, instead of moving a nice expo for the kids. That’s the learning.

For Halloween, we’ve done it two years only, so I think it’s difficult to draw out much on the data. The first year was a great success, and we met those figures for the next year in sales, and it’s still driving sales. We do a lot of marketing locally and combine that with social media. There’s more focus on central marketing and from store organizations. And we did some new produce in the campaign and now are currently evaluating the assortment for next year. We want to have a new monster every year. I think we will keep 80 percent of the products in the Halloween line, but we want to have a launch of a new monster or other things to keep the campaign fresh.

Q: On the product side, some of your fun, monster-themed products, such as Dracula hearts (pre-boiled beetroot), and Zombie brain (cauliflower), don’t seem particularly kid-friendly from a taste standpoint, especially during a candy-infused holiday (trick or treat?)! Do you find Swedish kids actually eat those? Are you looking to build the line with fruits and vegetables that kids typically prefer, or intentionally try to push them out of their comfort zone to try new things?

A: For the first year, it was a big trial and we were just trying to find things that looked a bit Halloweenish or scary. I know kids are not fond of beetroot and cauliflower, but we could do something fun with it. It’s a combination of a creative idea and trying to find something that kids like, so for next year we increased the number of fruits because we know kids like fruit, but at the same time we want to have vegetables in the campaign and promote the case to eat more vegetables and try new things. And doing it in a playful manner, to take Spider Bodies (blue potatoes) and make blue mashed potatoes. Getting kids to try new things by attracting them.

Q: Do you see prolonged effects of the Halloween campaign period sales jump spill over during the rest of the year? Does it generate excitement in the produce department after the campaign ends or perhaps create interest in items played up in the campaign? I imagine that’s challenging to measure due to the many variables involved…

A: That is difficult to measure unfortunately. What we want to see based on the studies is an increase in consumption especially of items that kids need to consume. That’s our main goal. The consumption is too low. I think this is a long-term commitment we need to do. It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s hard to change consumer behavior and consumption patterns. Of course, we see continued growth in sales, but I can’t necessarily attribute that to the campaign. I can’t really give that correlation.

Q: It could overlap with trends related to healthier eating and other factors…?

A: Exactly. It is something that helps promote these trends, but I cannot give the credit to the campaign. This is an overall society issue, and we must do everything we can to give it attention and find ways to get more fruits and vegetables in kids’ diets.

It’s a long-term effort. It takes time to get the consumption to rise, too long in my opinion, but we’re doing everything we can.

Q: We’ve discussed challenges of changing eating habits, and you’ve been keen to reach children (and their palates) at early stages of development. Could you share some of your thoughts here?

A: What we see, which is quite frightening, is the preference for taste is developed at a very early age. We need kids to start eating different types of fruits and vegetables. Some scientific studies say as early as the age of two, preferences for tastes are being shaped; there’s a critical window between ages two and five. I’m not saying that after that it’s impossible, but if we can get kids at an early age to taste broccoli and cauliflower —and the different vegetables that are not sweet — and have them eating more vegetables at an early age, that makes it easier down the road.

That’s why in our Halloween campaign, we had fruit, which is easier, but we also had the vegetables like beetroot and cauliflower, which you might not think are for kids. We try to do anything to intrigue the younger generation and also to get the word out to the parents that you need to start at an early age to get your kids’ taste buds accustomed to these tastes.

Q: Furthering our discussion of short-term and long-term impacts of different campaigns… Often in a category promotional campaign, such as citrus or stone fruit, it increases sales of that category, but it doesn’t necessarily boost overall department sales, but just redistributes sales numbers from one category to another. For instance, the consumer picks stone fruit instead of grapes. It sounds like your strategy is to design category campaigns that stimulate broader category sales as well as those of the whole department…

A: That’s our firm belief, and what we want to do. Every fruit has its own characteristics and taste and what you can use it for, and a reason to add one more thing to the basket. We want to broaden people’s knowledge about fruit. It shouldn’t be apple or nectarine, but apple and nectarine.

Also, it’s about expanding the assortment and bringing new products that are unfamiliar to Swedish consumers. We know from earlier campaigns like citrus, where we sell by variety and name, when people find a new variety they like, they buy that one and also buy the other one they know. It’s the same with apples… you buy specific varieties, you don’t just buy a bunch of apples.

This is what we want to do with stone fruit as well. There’s the big apricot and the small plum, and the normal nectarine. It’s another kind of fruit to consume, so it’s about adding to the basket. This is driving value when you do this, because you can add value products, but you also drive uplift volume.

We don’t see cannibalization (I think that’s what you’re asking). It’s building the whole fruit category. Of course, it drives value more in the category you’re focusing on, but we don’t see decreases in the other categories, if it doesn’t have another explanation.

Q: Like what?

A: For example, every other year, pears are more expensive because one year you have a good harvest and another year a supply issue increased the cost, so it’s because of a price issue, not because of the category campaign.

This campaign has a big communication package. Educating the consumer is very important. We have stone fruit schools in the stores, and on our website, recipes really show the versatility of the product, so it’s not just a snacking product. That’s increasing sales, because you see it can be used in cooking, which you may never have thought of before.

Q: Are there in-store demos and tastings?

A: That’s up to each store… we encourage them to do that because we have new products we want consumers to taste, but it’s not something we organize centrally. Each store is its own entity, but the produce people are really good salesmen and saleswomen, and they understand the value of doing demos or slicing up the fruit for consumers to try.

Q: One other thing I wanted to follow up on with the more general store-wide campaigns, where you collaborate with organizations like the Red Cross and the Cancer Society. With the Pink Ribbon campaign, for instance, do you look to connect the health benefits of produce? In the U.S., there are strict regulations on product health claims, which retailers and suppliers must follow.

A: When we look at other assortments involved in the campaign, we are the main driver because a good diet is clearly linked to reducing the risk of cancer. We as a retailer can’t make too many claims in this area, but when we have collaborations with cancer organizations, they do a lot on their side with science and research saying that produce is important.

And I think our department has by far the most SKUs connected with this campaign than any other department in the store. All the departments in the store do a really good job, but when you walk into the produce department and see the design and the complementary color assortment, you can really see a big part of the campaign is done in our department. We try our best to connect healthy eating with less red meat and more fruit and veg, and while we’re restricted on what we can say as a retailer, the cancer association can do a lot as a partner, and they really do.

Q: Another issue on tap at the London Produce Show is the consumer shift to plant-based diets. England Marketing will be doing a seminar addressing the significant changes. During my preview interview with Jan England, she argues the fresh produce industry should be taking a more proactive role to capitalize on the trend…

You’ve talked about Meatless Mondays in Sweden. A lot of these “meatless” products, such as the impossible burger, are filled with soy and beans, rather than fresh produce ingredients. Is this something you’re interested in?

A: Yes, we see this transition in our company as well, and we do a lot of things in vegan. That’s another department, but I’m in a project to closely monitor plant-based eating. We cannot sell these kinds of products in our department, but we also know by research, if you’re a vegan, the fresh produce department is very important. So, when you get these consumers in the store, what else are they consuming with that soy burger? Also, not everybody is wanting a protein substitute with lettuce and tomato. People are exploring new ways of eating vegetarian foods, where fresh produce is the main ingredient.

We’re engaged in the conversation and acknowledge there’s a shift to plant-based diets, which is important to our category as well, and we need to understand how this change in consumption effects the produce department. What are the big produce items for vegans and how can we substitute meat proteins with raw produce and make an aubergine (eggplant) burger or a shitake burger instead. So, we’re in the discussion, although maybe we’re not in the lead because it’s not our department. That session on plant-based diets and the potential for produce should be very interesting.

Q: Attendees certainly have much to look forward to…!


Maria’s work is interesting in part because she can’t just dictate down a corporate structure; she has to offer promotions that her individual store owners find useful and profitable.

So she wrestles not just with what kind of promotion is eye-catching, but with what will produce results.

This means struggling with questions such as whether a burst in current sales steals from another time period, the long term impact of children’s consumption patterns and whether or not a focus on one fruit is just swapping sales from another.

Maria will both be presenting a seminar session during the trade show on June 6 at 12:45 — titled, Raising Consumption: Promoting Fruit & Veg During Holiday Periods — and participating in our Perishable Pundit Thought-Leader Panel, so please join us as Maria shares lessons from retailing in Sweden.

You can check out the website here.

Register here.

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