I recently wrote an article for Retail World Magazine, here's a copy…

The word FRESH is defined as recently made, produced, or harvested; imparting vitality and energy; not canned, soured or otherwise preserved; and free from impurities.

When one hears this word in association with produce, one assumes the produce is one, if not all of those descriptions. However, I really wonder how many fresh produce retailers really understand the term.

While some of our biggest grocery chains claim to be specialist fresh food providers, their fresh produce sections leave a lot to be desired. Not only is some of the stock ready for the grave, but they encourage consumers to bury it by providing garbage bins next to the produce bins. Its little wonder consumers are gravitating back to independently owned and operated stores, sending a clear message that they're not happy with what the chains offer. So why don't they 'GET THE MESSAGE”?

Do they just not care? Are they hiring the wrong people? Is making money the only focus? I'd imagine the amount of fresh produce that is thrown out each week can't be easy on the budget! So, what else could they be doing?

I recently asked one of my networks of friends and colleagues three questions regarding their fresh produce purchasing habits. Their answers were not a surprise …

“What inspires you to buy the fresh produce when you enter a supermarket or grocery store?”

  • Having only fresh ripe or slightly under ripe produce on display. As soon as it shows even the slightest sign of a wilt, crinkle or the whiff of decay, it should be removed from the shelf.
  • Fruits and vegetables that literally begin to deteriorate within hours of picking should be locally sourced, so freshness can be guaranteed and promoted.
  • Single stacked bins, not produce piled up in mounds. The bottom layers just don't breathe, (and when one goes off, the others soon follow).

“What service from the retailer would encourage you to buy more fresh produce than packaged goods?”

  • Having someone available who knows all there is to know about the produce would be good. Where it was grown, how long between picking and merchandising, what kind of storage it's had and how should I store it once I get it home. Some help with how to prepare and cook it would also be welcome.
  • If the produce is under ripe, explain why and how to ripen it and how long it will take. Surprisingly, this information is not common knowledge.
  • Have samples of new or unfamiliar produce available to taste. I'm reluctant to buy something they've never tasted. If it needs to be cooked first, have some cooked for taste testing.
  • Providing purpose designed storage bags that can go straight into the fridge or pantry and will keep the produce fresher for longer.
  • Provide access to preparation information, either through written material or vision and images that are quickly or easily searchable or prominently displayed.
  • Free recipe cards for some of the not so common items would always encourage me to buy more.

“Is lack of food preparation knowledge a factor when buying fresh produce?”
Yes. When one doesn't recognise an item, chances are, that also don't know what to do with it.

  • Yes, lack of knowledge prevents me from trying unfamiliar produce.
  • Yes, lack of food prep knowledge is definitely a factor. If I don't know how to prepare an item, I just walk on by.

These answers emphasise a general dissatisfaction with the quality of the produce provided, (particularly from the major supermarket chains) and the lack of well informed staff who could advise on the produce that was available. It was also clear that many consumers also didn't have enough personal knowledge to make informed judgements, particularly about new or unusual produce.

In a time when the push to eat more fresh produce is so high, I am astounded how many retailers don't take more advantage of the publicity and gear their businesses to make it as easy as possible for the consumers to want to buy and/or try more produce. A little bit more effort into merchandising, staff training and consumer education, could go a long way.

I'm not sprouting anything new here, this information is common knowledge, but why is so little being done about it? Putting into practice some of these suggestions from everyday consumers surely must be a start? You don't have to do major media campaigns, it can be done at store level with just a few simple innovations such as…

  • Putting fewer products out and displaying them in single layers and replenishing as it depletes. This also gives consumers that you don't just buy in bulk and whack it out; you buy small quantities of good quality produce.
  • Having a trained informed staff member in the store/section that is knows all about what's available and is helpful and friendly and willing to impart the knowledge. No good having an Einstein if they're grouchy and annoyed by customers.
  • Don't just have recipe cards, have preparation cards, or better still if your budget affords it, plasma or LCD screens with information scrolling through or preparation and cooking of items demonstrated. This same information could capture customer's attention, and then have the same information on your websites so they can go there when they get home and get the audio as well.