The industry is caught in a dilemma that if not resolved really will hold back sales. Recently, the Pundit happened to be in a supermarket where they were selling some heirloom tomatoes.
The tomatoes were the Southern Selects product distributed by Southern Specialties.
The merchandising was a little odd, with just a single flat carton put on top of a case where the store sells glazes and other non-produce items. There was no signage, no price, no usage information.
We bought them because we were interested, and so the Pundit office will get to try a Gold Medal Variety, a Cherokee Purple Variety and a Red Brandywine Variety. On its Southern Selects website, the company has some information:
Southern Selects True Family Heirloom Tomatoes are grown from seeds handed down from, generation to generation for up to 200 years. These seeds produce fruit that looks and tastes like those tomatoes grown years ago. We grow and market three different varieties of heirloom tomatoes. Each variety is chosen for its unique flavor and appearance.
This Amish variety, originating in the 1880’s, was the first to achieve cult status. Years ago, these seeds were saved by families in the Brandywine River region of Pennsylvania. In tomato tastings the Red Brandywine has been voted one of the top three favorites. It is legendary for its exceptionally rich, succulent tomato flavor. The fruit is reddish-pink with a light, creamy flesh.
This pre-1890 Tennessee beefsteak heirloom originated from the Cherokee Indian tribe. The tomato is sweet and rich in flavor with slightly ridged shoulders and a dusky-rose-purple appearance. Its color is so dark it is often referred to as a “black “ tomato.
This gold-red bicolor heirloom beefsteak from the Black Forest region of Germany arrived in the U.S. in the late 1800’s. The round deep gold fruits feature red streaks on the blossom end and throughout the inside. When sliced, the red marbling through the golden tomato takes on the appearance of stained glass. They have an outstanding sweet flavor that is low in acid.
Selection: Choose tomatoes with firm flesh and bright shiny skin. Southern Selects Heirloom Tomatoes have a full, deep color when ripe.
Handling & Preparation: Quickly rinse Southern Selects Heirloom Tomatoes under cool water. Try these delicious tomatoes as the main ingredient in salads or as an accompaniment to any entrée. Southern Selects Heirloom Tomatoes are grown for their rich, tomatoey flavor.
Storage: Store Southern Selects Heirloom Tomatoes at room temperature.
Nutrition Info: Tomatoes are high in vitamins A and C and potassium. Southern Selects Heirloom Tomatoes are low calorie, low fat, and cholesterol free. They are a healthy addition to any meal.
It is also true that if one wants to research the subject on the Internet, there is a lot of interesting information available. For example, The Culinary Institute of America produced this video featuring Paul Wigsten, produce buyer for The Culinary Institute of America, who also owns a farm in the Hudson valley. He discusses heirloom tomatoes and cuts open the Cherokee Purple variety so one can see inside. He also provides references for Salsa recipes that one can use the tomatoes in.
Take a look at the video:
This is all great, but the problem is that it is an unreasonable expectation to think that more than a small percentage of our customers are going to do such research.
We have to have ways to not just offer product in the produce department, but actually sell it.
A few years back, there was an explosion of innovation in the produce department with companies such as Tanimura & Antle, Mann Packing, a D’Arrigo/RLB joint venture and others developing soups, pastas and other items. Most of these items failed, and to a large extent the failure was a matter of retailers being unwilling to devote the space and the time needed to cultivate consumer acceptance for these items.
These heirloom tomatoes might be able to attract a large audience — but not with one lonely case sitting on a shelf filled with glazes. Not without some information about why a consumer should buy them.
Now one might say this is the producer’s problem — and it is, of course. But it really is the whole industry’s problem. If we are interested in Fruits & Veggies — More Matters! and, more generally, in increasing consumption, we have to remember that we cannot increase consumption in general without increasing it in particular.
In other words, we need to boost the sales of specific items and have new items to grow consumption.
So the trade cannot be indifferent to the way these types of products are treated.
We bought these tomatoes at an important chain store. We are sure if the retailer asked Southern Specialties for pamphlets or signage, a deal could be made. But the economics of the industry dictate that a lot of the marketing of these innovative products has to be done at retail.
First, with these products and certainly brands of product not likely to be universally distributed, consumer marketing is going to be difficult. Second, in a situation like these heirloom tomatoes, the shipper has no patent on the variety. How much can he spend promoting them when the retailer may throw him out because someone else is a quarter cheaper?
So we have to look for new and better ways to promote to and educate consumers.
We wonder if the basic design of the produce department doesn’t need to be reexamined in light of new technology. Bill Gates has a house in which the artwork shows up on digital screens that can be changed at will. Maybe we should have a department designed to incorporate digital screens and Internet connections so relevant information can be displayed and changed as appropriate.
We had run a piece about a floral department experience we had here, and we wondered if, in an age of pagers and Blackberries, interrupting everyone’s shopping experience to blast a request over the public address system that the produce manager should go to floral was the only way it could be done.
Other than adding fresh-cut cases, the bones of the produce department look pretty much the same as it did 50 years ago. Maybe we need to start looking a lot harder at technology and what we can do with it.
Obviously technology is not the whole answer; with or without high-tech screens, retailers still have to commit space and time to a product.
What concerns us about what we saw with this lonely tray of heirloom tomatoes is that some category manager, sitting at headquarters, expert at spreadsheets, is going to run the numbers and say this product isn’t working and discontinue it. He won’t know or care where it was merchandised, the lack of support material, the lack of sampling and demos and recipes.
Multiply this one product by 100 similarly neglected, and you have an answer for why our consumption goals may not be met.