Whether it's because it tastes better or is better for you, your produce is what naturals shoppers love best of all. And when they're not filling their baskets with salad fixings, they're perusing the soy products, according to The Natural Foods Merchandiser's "State of the Natural Products Consumer" research.
When shoppers were asked to name the product that they had been most satisfied with in the past six months, fresh produce topped the list. One consumer polled commented, "Fresh organic tomatoes—the taste is just better, need I say more?" Produce also nailed the top spot when consumers were asked what the one natural, organic or health product is that they would have the hardest time doing without.
Why the love affair with fruits and veggies? Variety, says Robert Schueller, director of public relations for Melissa's World Variety Produce in Los Angeles. "One of the main reasons [produce sells so well] is the variety in a given store. I think that the average store carries 300 varieties of produce; however, there's over a thousand different options out there, so there's more choices available to a produce department than any other," he says.
Add to that the changing seasonal offerings retailers can play with, and the produce section is quite an exciting department, Schueller says. "You can go into a store and always get any boxed, jarred or canned item 365 days a year, but the produce department has seasonal varietals. Although a store may always carry honeydew and cantaloupe, during the summer, you can add Crenshaw, Sharlyn, Casaba and Santa Claus melons," he says.
Health also plays a role in the popularity of produce. "Even though we under?eat [fresh fruit and vegetables] in this culture, it is becoming a more popular snack food. The [U.S. Department of Agriculture] food pyramid now has 7 to 13 servings of fruits and veggies a day—it's finally hitting home," he says.
Consumers reported that fresh produce also was the first product they would recommend to someone for a positive experience with natural, organic and health products. Claude Friedland, of Sarasota, Fla., was thrilled when a Whole Foods finally came to town because of the store's produce department. "It reminds me of the markets in France [where I grew up], and the organic vegetables definitely taste better," she says. Friedland now has all her French-American friends shopping there as well.
Following produce, soy was the No. 2 product that consumers reported they would have the hardest time doing without. Soy products were also No. 2 for the best products consumers had tried in the past six months. Laura Rhoad of Fort Myers, Fla., says that White Wave's [Silk] Very Vanilla soymilk is her favorite new product. "I like the flavor and the fact that I'm getting soy protein every day," she says.
Soy products beat out fresh fish and meat (which were No. 3) for best new products tried because of several factors, suggests Jean Heggie, director of market insights at The Solae Co. in St. Louis. "New products in the soy category are more innovative in terms of flavor and convenience.
Manufacturers are combining soy ingredients with other healthful ingredients as well, to create more nutritious, highly unique products," she says.
Secondly, particularly among natural foods shoppers, there is a growing consensus that plant-based foods, as opposed to animal-based foods, deliver unique, healthful benefits, Heggie says. "In recent focus groups we completed, we heard consumers relate meat to high-fat, high-cholesterol, hard-to-digest attributes and relate vegetable or plant-based protein to low fat, good fats and no cholesterol."
To increase soy sales, emphasize soy products in advertising and promotions, says Tina Nelson, director of sales and marketing for consumer products for the Soyfoods Association in Hope, Minn. "Retailers can put together promotions and circulars for soy during Soy Month in February or Heart Health Month in April, for example," she says.
Sampling is a good idea as well, Heggie says. "Many consumers, who are not soy food users now, are still somewhat skeptical of their flavor. Sampling is very effective in getting consumers to buy soy foods and helps to overcome any taste-perception barriers that still might exist."?
Consumers polled did state that price and product confusion prevented them from spending more at natural products stores.
"We have observed in our work with consumers that most perceive soy as healthy, but fewer can state a reason why it is healthy," Heggie says. This is where simple signage could ease confusion and boost sales, she says.
Many consumers say they are looking for a break. If Holly Stevens of Denver could, she would do all of her shopping at her neighborhood natural products store, but it's too expensive, so she does about half her shopping there, she says. "I like the selection of soy products better at Whole Foods and the variety of healthy snacks and other grocery products, and if the prices were lower we'd shop there more," she says.
When it comes to breaking down the price barrier to organic produce, retailers can do several things, says Mark Mulcahy, founder of Organic Options consulting in Glen Ellen, Calif., and a colum?nist for The Natural Foods Merchandiser. "Every produce department should have at least six good deals [on organic items] so the shoppers consistently see good prices," he says.
"They also may want to negotiate with distributors to create an everyday value program that features four or five commodity items like apples, potatoes and carrots, so that people on a budget can afford organics."
Also, educating produce employees about the benefits of organics for farmers, the environment and consumers will trickle down and help customers pay the extra price for organic produce, Mulcahy says. "Stores don't do a good enough job teaching employees about organics so that they can answer basic questions," he says. "Retailers can be a bit contradictory informing their customers why organic is better. As competition continues to grow, it will distinguish them from other stores."
Anna Soref is a Lafayette, Colo.-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 8/p. 30, 32