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Is Marking Some Produce “Farm To Store In 24” Good For Fresh & Easy? Is It Good For The Produce Industry?

Our extensive analysis of Tesco’s Journey to America as Fresh & Easy has served as a wonderful case study into the way at least one giant corporation does business. One of the things that has been interesting is how often, even if technically accurate, the announcements from headquarters are not entirely frank.

For example, Fresh & Easy has been running a program that promotes its ability to get product into the store in 24 hours. In fact, it just announced that it is expanding the program:

Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market is expanding its popular “Farm to Store in 24” program, bringing more produce from California farms to its stores in less than 24 hours. The grocer is working with local growers to bring additional fruit such as peaches and nectarines as well as vegetables into the program as summer turns to fall. Fresh & Easy’s “Farm to Store in 24” program started with a simple concept: getting the freshest produce possible to its customers in the shortest amount of time.

In choosing partners for the program, Fresh & Easy’s produce team identified local growers who share the grocer’s passion and commitment to bring customers high-quality food at affordable prices. All “Farm to Store in 24” products come from California farms, and depending on the season, as much as 65% of all of Fresh & Easy’s produce comes from California.

“Getting produce from the farm to the store in 24 hours or less is an incredibly tricky task, which makes it important to partner with strong local growers who share our commitment to quality produce,” said Justin Hill, Fresh & Easy’s produce manager. “We are working closely with these growers here to put in the extra care required to expand our ‘Farm to Store in 24’ offerings whenever we can.”

This summer Fresh & Easy has been offering strawberries and table grapes through the “Farm to Store in 24” program. With the table grape season in the Coachella Valley wrapping up, Fresh & Easy is now getting “Farm to Store” grapes from Pandol Bros. in Delano. Andrew & Williamson (A&W) grows strawberries for the program in Ventura County and Watsonville, always within sight of the Pacific Ocean. San Diego-based A&W is family-owned and operated.

To let customers know when produce is available on shelves within 24 hours from leaving the farm where it’s grown, Fresh & Easy places a special logo on “Farm to Store in 24” products. The company also recently created a video about the program, available to view on YouTube:

This whole line of promotion is a little curious. It is being trumpeted as if it is a great novelty and innovation, yet it is not uncommon for certain items from California to hit the shelves within 24 hours of leaving a packinghouse.

Just the other day, we recommended that Fresh & Easy consider hiring Dick Spezzano, the former Vice President of Produce at Vons, as a consultant. He knows the region, the competitors and the supply channels, so we thought he could help.

Now that Fresh & Easy is into this “Farm to Store in 24” program, they could certainly benefit from some of Dick’s personal experience. He started the same program at Vons, maybe, oh, a little over a quarter century ago. We called Dick to ask him to refresh our memory. Here is what he said:

Yes, this was one of our marketing claims as we did get the produce from the Central Valley, Central Coast and the Coachella Valley from the field, cooled, to our DC, and to the stores in less than 24 hours. We would say “most produce from field to store in 24 hours or less”.

So, both Vons and Fresh & Easy and probably others have managed to get some produce items into the store in 24 hours. The image appeal of the freshness is understandable. The actual impact on freshness less so. After all, the programs carefully select those items that are seasonal and close by anyway.

Even if another store gets the produce there in 36 hours, the impact on flavor and shelf life may not even be noticeable by consumers. After all, the same product, shipped the same time still hasn’t hit New York and that product is perfectly acceptable. In general, there are other metrics, say, how quickly the fruit was pre-cooled, that probably matters more than being in the store in 24 hours.

Beyond the issue of whether it matters or not, there are issues regarding the way Fresh & Easy is presenting this program to consumers.

Although the slogan is “Farm to Store in 24” Jim Hill, who identifies himself as “the produce guy” at Fresh & Easy, explains in the video referenced in the press release that consumers should look for the “Farm to Store in 24” logo on certain items. Then he goes on to explain the meaning of the logo… “…that means that our product goes from the pack house to our stores within 24 hours…” but, of course, coming from the packinghouse is not the same as the farm. If Jim Hill is speaking accurately, it makes the program rather deceptive.

There also is an explanation that this program has something to do with “local growers,” which is surely true if all we are talking about is geography. Of course, the grapes from Coachella or Delano were just as local last year when they didn’t promote this program.

We pointed out that Wal-Mart was goosing its local numbers by defining local as anything grown in state.

Recently we pointed out the absurdity of all this by noting that the single action Wal-Mart could take that would most boost its local percentage was just to open more stores in California! The question is whether consumers aren’t expecting something different when they are told that Fresh & Easy is working with local farmers to accomplish something.

In fact, the press release seems as if it was designed to bamboozle people. Read this sentence:

All “Farm to Store in 24” products come from California farms, and depending on the season, as much as 65% of all of Fresh & Easy’s produce comes from California.

The syllogism is obvious:

All “Farm to Store in 24” produce comes from California.

As much as 65% of all of Fresh & Easy’s produce comes from California.

A more skeptical person would think Fresh & Easy wanted consumers to leap to the conclusion that 65% of the produce in store is there in 24 hours.

In reality the first two steps of the syllogisms are logically unrelated and lead to no third point at all.

Actually, very few items are going to meet this 24-hour limit, and if Fresh & Easy is serious about it and, say, asks it third-party auditor to verify the statement, even fewer will.

To us the bigger issue is whether, today, with the local movement so strong, this approach is good for either Fresh & Easy or the produce industry. After all, presumably a program like “Farm to Store in 24” is saying that this is a good thing, that the consumer is getting some value here.

In the same video, Fresh & Easy’s Jim Hill explains what that value is as he explains that the chain will be transitioning into fall produce and more vegetables, such as cauliflower, broccoli and the leaf items. He claims that consumers “can taste the difference,” although we know of no studies showing consumer taste preference for produce items that are in the store in 24 hours as opposed to, say, 36 hours.

If this is true, what are the implications? That 95% plus of the produce in Fresh & Easy is noticeably not as tasty as it could be? That all the California produce shipped to the east coast and all imported produce is noticeably less delicious than the 24-hour old product at Fresh & Easy?

Vons may have used the 24-hour turn-around as a general marketing tool to show it emphasizes freshness and cares about freshness. But the stores didn’t mark individual items with badges. Maybe it is because they realized that the items without the stickers might be the ones being badged — with the absence of the 24-hour mark meaning that this product is not very good.

Is that good for Fresh & Easy? For Tesco? For produce growers and shippers?

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