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Pundit’s Mailbag —
What To Do With Innovative Products

Our piece, Merchandising Neglect Leads To Less Consumption, dealt with the Pundit’s discovery of some terrific heirloom tomatoes sitting forlornly in a produce department, without any effort being made to actually sell the item.

The money quote from the piece:

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.

We received a couple of quick letters, including this one from the marketer of the heirloom tomatoes:

We read your article, “Merchandising Neglect Leads to Less Consumption,” with great interest. We are happy that the Pundit showed interest in our Southern Selects True Family Heirloom Tomatoes.

Southern Specialties has grown, and marketed, our True Family Heirloom Tomatoes for several years. Each year we produce more tomatoes, in our Florida greenhouses, and each year the demand is greater than our supply. This is an enviable position for a company to be in. This is, however, a boutique program for Southern Specialties. We are proud to offer a beautiful, full flavored, premium, genuine heirloom tomato year round. Especially during the winter months when there are few offerings in this category. Our customers realize this value, as well.

You state, “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”.

Our customers are faced with the decision of how best to allocate their volume of tomatoes. They must choose between providing less product to more stores or offering more product to fewer consumers. This can be a difficult call.

Southern Selects True Family Heirloom Tomatoes are available in boxes designed to educate the consumer about heirloom tomatoes and help them make selections. We also offer information geared toward educating produce department employees.

We agree with your premise that the trade cannot be indifferent to the ways these types of products are treated. In general, this retailer does a good job merchandising their product. We all have room for improvement.

Growers, marketers, retailers and even foodservice distributors owe it to themselves, and their customers, to provide value in every possible manner. This includes shipping the best possible product as timely as possible, managing the category efficiently, providing information beneficial to the consumer and ALWAYS remembering who the true customer is.

In an era where there are more products, categories and SKU’s, including fruits and vegetables presented in organic, conventional and value-added versions, utilizing technological advancements have become a necessity. We agree the future of merchandising may, very well, lie in incorporating more technology in the produce section of our markets.

We appreciate your attention to the many details that affect our industry. Your observations provide excellent food for thought.

— Charlie Eagle
Vice President
Business Development
Southern Specialties

We thank Charlie for his kind words about the Pundit. It is indeed an admirable position to be in to have one’s customers on allocation.

Yet, of course, that is a short-term phenomenon at best. To be a big buyer is a thing of beauty. Wave a multi-year purchase order and greenhouses rise from the desert.

It is admirable for Charlie and Southern Specialties to speak up on behalf of their customer. But retailers know what is happening.

The Pundit received calls or e-mails from a half dozen friends in retail after this piece ran — the gist of them all: How did you know about our guy with the spreadsheets?

If a product is in short supply and it also is new, then the dilemma Charlie points to must be resolved in favor of proper merchandising and promotion. The stores where the product will be sold need a consistent supply of product in a display large enough to be found with sufficient selling techniques applied that we can build up demand over time for the product.

The heirloom tomatoes were delicious. The Pundit’s office staff enjoyed them thoroughly, but when we went to buy more, there were none in the store. That is just a recipe for disappointing customers, not building demand.

Of course, when given an order for 500 cases, a vendor can’t dictate where the retailer puts the product — but the vendor can’t be indifferent either. Because if placed in a manner where the consumer can’t find them and displayed in a way where consumers don’t know what they are or why they are worth a try, they won’t sell.

And if they don’t sell, ultimately, the chain will stop ordering. That is how the shortage of today can turn into the surplus of tomorrow and it is that focus on the consumer experience with the product that is the key for both retailer and vendor if they are to build the business… for themselves and for higher produce consumption in America.

Many thanks to Charlie Eagle and Southern Specialties for helping us think through such an important issue.

The same piece also brought forth a letter by a well known marketing and merchandising organization:

I wanted to comment on your article regarding Merchandising Tomatoes… or the lack thereof, and I wanted to agree with your view.

As a merchandising consultancy, we are constantly trying to determine the ideal way to grab consumers and direct them to the client’s display.

Complex, wordy explanations of product and usage does not seem to do it. (“You have 30 seconds!”)

Bright, easy to ready, “catchy” banners and header cards work often.

We have seen recent success using in-store radio, delivering a “go-there-now!” message.

In all, there is no “one solution” and the effort needs to be professionally executed and customized by product. Yet certainly we have seen that important information properly directed to consumers really does sell product and initiate the process of long term customer development.

— Veronica Kraushaar
VIVA Marketing Strategies
Nogales & Scottsdale, AZ

As Veronica points out, we have so many tools… what is difficult is aligning the behaviors of vendors and retailers with the interests of consumers who, after all, truly do want to experience great new products.

To some extent, the problem also is genetic; up until practically yesterday, the produce industry didn’t have many new products.

Now we confront marketing and merchandising issues such as never before and the answers are complex. The same heirloom tomato marketed in Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Costco, HEB and Wal-Mart will require a different approach in each.

But as much as the techniques are complex, the principles are simple. You just can’t buy one case of an innovative product, stick it in some obscure location without any marketing and think that demand will magically develop.

And a spreadsheet full of numbers but devoid of an explanation of what contributed to the creation of those numbers has little value.

Many thanks to Veronica for pointing out some of the many arrows the industry holds in its quiver when it is looking to build demand.

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