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The Disconnect Between Marketing Of Local And Sales Of Local And The Necessity For Promoting What We Actually Sell

An attendee at the recent New York Produce Show and Conference sent us this note regarding a discussion we had on stage with a baker’s dozen of industry ‘thought-leaders’:

PRODUCE BUSINESS Magazine and the Eastern Produce Council are to be congratulated for the success of the 3rd Annual New York Produce Show and Conference.

I want to strongly disagree, however, with your lengthy discussion and conclusions during the Perishable Pundit “Thought Leaders” Opening Breakfast Symposium about the growing trend of “locally grown” items in the produce department. This is simply incorrect.   

Despite rhetoric and publicity to the contrary, consumers are most interested in CHOICE in their produce department. This has resulted in year-round availability of fresh produce from around the globe. During the winter, sugar snap peas and melons from Central America, asparagus and sweet onions from Peru, blueberries, grapes and pomegranates from Chile, to name just a few, are among the most important factors in the increased sales and consumption of fresh produce.   

Does the “local” aspect of a particular fresh produce item impact a customer’s choice in selecting a particular fruit or vegetable — I suspect very little. Local produce — which for now let us define as fruits and vegetables grown within 150 miles of where it is consumed — has become LESS, not more, important as a total percentage of produce sales.  Ten years from now, this trend will be even more so — not less. PRODUCE BUSINESS should examine this theory with actual sales data from supermarkets to quantify, confirm or contradict it.   

The international nature of fresh produce (and everything else) is a fact of life. Whether our smart phones, music videos, automobiles or peaches are produced in South Korea or South Carolina is interesting but not the key factor in our purchasing decisions. Goods and services are manufactured where they are most efficient and productive at fulfilling a particular consumer need or want — around the globe. The increasing availability on retail store shelves in the USA of Argentine organic apples and pears in February adds options for consumers and takes away nothing. Ask Washington state apple and California citrus growers if the global nature of fresh produce is increasing or decreasing.  

On Wednesday at the New York Produce show, I was speaking with a grower of domestic sweet onions in Georgia who also has international grower partners in Peru. His observation is that consumers care more about the “locale” nature of their produce than whether or not it is grown near where they live. They want to know about the farm and the general milieu of the fresh produce they consume. How was it grown? What is the farm like?  What are the sanitary standards? How are the workers treated?     

The overwhelming majority of consumers want choice, value, quality and convenience.  We as produce industry professionals need to continue to embrace THAT reality and increase sales of ALL healthy fresh produce, not romanticized notions of a trend that does not exist.

— Craig Padover
Account and Category Manager
Jac. Vandenberg Inc.
Yonkers, New York

Craig is astute in noting that actual produce sales have not in any way tracked the hype related to “local.” In fact, how could they? Unless consumers were to decide to forgo bananas, winter fruit, citrus, avocados, etc., they could not, in much of the country, possibly become true locavores.

Indeed many of the proclamations made by retailers as to their local sales are questionable. We joked here that Wal-Mart, which defines local as “in state,” could increase its local sales simply by opening more stores in California.

One very progressive retailer told us that many get confused between marketing and sales. His chain is promoting local very aggressively, but sales are not significantly higher than they had been before these marketing efforts.

Indeed this may be the crux of the issue regarding Craig’s concern. We may need to distinguish between procurement or sales trends and marketing trends.

That retailers are focused on local as a marketing tool is not really subject to dispute.  Even all this attention to rooftop greenhouses, etc., are mostly undertaken with the idea of positioning a store as hyper-local.

On the foodservice end, white table-cloth chefs also like to promote local, the idea being that the chef has some special connection with the local farmer and has added value by vetting his produce.

We wouldn’t say that the “Thought Leader” panel reached any conclusions on local. It was more a matter of sharing ideas on how retailers could capitalize on the marketing craze surrounding local.

Certainly, overall, The New York Produce Show and Conference was committed to the entire supply chain. In fact, the day before that breakfast panel, the event featured The Global Trade Symposium. This annual event is dedicated to the proposition that this is a global industry. You can take a look at the 2012 agenda here and the 2011 agenda here and see that we spent a full day exploring the intricacies of global trade.    

This being said, we do think that Craig is posing a key question: Are retailers doing enough to communicate how proud they are of their non-local produce?

Greg Drescher, Vice President Strategic Initiatives & Industry Leadership at the Culinary Institute of America, is fond of telling a story: Harvard’s dining program came out with a brochure lauding its operation. The vast majority of the brochure was focused on Harvard’s very aggressive locally grown program. Of course, no matter how aggressive a program, there just isn’t that much produce grown locally to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and, as a school, the population drops during the summer when a lot of that local product is available. So local simply can’t account for a very high percentage of Harvard’s usage of fresh produce.

So the question Greg posed was whether or not Harvard dining was as proud of the vast majority of its purchases, which are not locally grown, as it is of its local program.

This is a fair question for all retailers. There is now a lot of research that indicates that the meaning of “locally grown” varies quite a bit from a straight geographical interpretation. For example, in many cases, the interpretation may be political — one’s own state or country. Craig also points to the “locale” vs “local” argument, and there is a lot of indication that consumers want to know substantive things about where their food comes from — not just where the food is grown but how and by whom.

There are a lot of retailers who will hang photos of local farmers and descriptive information about the family and the farm. There is little reason to believe that consumers won’t value similar information about family farmers, properly tending their land, from all over the world.

Promoting local is fine, but what Craig is really asking is what about promoting the vast majority of produce that is actually in the stores? In the end, if we don’t promote what we are actually selling, we will one day be accused of being disingenuous. So retailers need to focus on being as proud of all their produce as they are of their locally grown programs, and then they need to start thinking about how to educate their consumers as to the fine quality of this product as well.

Many thanks to Craig, Account and Category Manager of Jac Vandenberg, Inc. for weighing in on this important issue.

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