If natural product stores were cocktail parties, the life of the party would be the produce section. Best described as colorful, sensuous and fun, fresh produce sales lead the organic foods category. But when marketing a 5-A-Day Plan to your customers, don't forget frozen and canned counterparts.
While frozen and canned vegetables may not qualify as the hottest product at the party, sales growth and the nutritional advantages are nothing to ignore. According to San Francisco-based market research firm SPINS, 2002 dollar sales for natural/organic frozen vegetables grew by 8.9 percent, and dollar sales for natural/organic canned vegetables rose by 20.9 percent. Conversely, 2001 and 2002 sales for conventional frozen vegetables increased moderately and canned vegetables sales remained flat or even declined.
Rising consumer demand for organic vegetables combined with increased product availability account for the good performance. Retailers say the convenience factor is also helping sales. Home cooks today don't have the time that grandma had to pare vegetables. But consumers are still interested in grandma's recipes and eating at home, which makes frozen and canned a convenient option.
"It's important that consumers have a pantry ready [from which to] prepare a healthy meal on short notice," says Tonya Martin, of Clinton, Mich.-based Eden Foods. And when comparing value, canned and frozen vegetables don't have any waste, unlike fresh vegetables, which can have as much as 40 percent waste by the time the stalks, leaves, pods and stems are removed.
If you are trying to increase frozen vegetable sales in your store, consider dropping the price by ever so little. According to a 1999 Economic Research Service study by Lewrene K. Glaser and Gary D. Thompson, the quantity of organic frozen vegetables an average consumer buys depends greatly on price. Sales increase by more than 1 percent when prices fall by 1 percent. And with price premiums for organic frozen vegetables ranging from 25 percent for sweet corn to upwards of 110 percent for peas, when compared to prices for conventional, there's some room for price adjustments.
Year-round variety helps push frozen vegetable sales, too. Consumers are no longer limited to organic frozen peas and diced carrots. For instance, Cascadian Farm introduced organic frozen-shelled edamame and organic sugar snap peas last year, two vegetables with short life spans in the produce section. Many consumers would like to buy from farmers' markets, but in regions with a short growing season, an early cold snap or drought can severely limit availability but not demand. It's a lot to ask a shopper to live on only root vegetables in the winter, says Elizabeth Archerd, member services director for Wedge Community Co-op in Minneapolis. "People would like to buy local, but in reality we live in Minnesota," she says.
Winter or summer, consumers consistently rate canned tomatoes as their product of choice. Readers cited tomatoes as their favorite vegetable in the "How America Eats 2003" annual survey in the March Bon Appétit magazine. In other consumer food surveys, organic canned tomatoes win out repeatedly in taste tests. "If I'm not picking it in my garden or buying from the farmers' market, nothing else will do but organic canned tomatoes," Eden Foods' Martin says. According to SPINS scan data, dollar sales for natural canned tomato products reached $14.8 million in 2002, a 13.2 percent increase.
Canned beans are at the top of most retailer grocery inventory lists. Trend watchers say interest in Mexican foods and an increasing Hispanic consumer base is keeping bean sales on the rise. Natural and organic canned bean sales figures back this up, increasing 10.9 percent to $13.3 million in 2002.
The other factor that puts canned bean sales above their dry counterparts is convenience. Dry beans require overnight soaking, boiling for an hour or two, or cooking the little devils in a pressure cooker. Contrast this with the ease of a can opener and a few minutes of stove time, and the canned beans win by 23 hours and 55 minutes. "It's great when consumers can cook their own dry beans," Martin says, "but it's hard to get good results."
Can consumers tell the difference between canned, frozen and fresh vegetables? It depends on the recipe. Research by the University of Massachusetts shows that for family-friendly dishes, such as chili, soups, Mexican dishes and pizza, recipe testers can't tell the difference between canned, frozen or even fresh. But getting consumers to take notice of canned vegetables can be a challenge, admits Betsy Perkins, store manager of Amazing Grains Natural Foods Market, a co-op in Grand Forks, N.D. Perkins says her senior shoppers are more inclined to buy canned vegetables than middle-aged or young shoppers.
History may account for this phenomenon. Before commercial food production, home canning was a common and safe means to preserve food grown on the family farm or in a backyard plot. And during World War II, home canning was essential because of rationing. "Everyone grew victory gardens," Archerd says, "and interestingly, the nutritional profile of the country improved greatly during that time." Food historians say World War II led to the development of the American frozen food industry, because when Japan invaded Southeast Asia, a major supplier of tin, supplies for commercial canning were cut off. That meant Americans had to rely on home canning (in glass jars) and frozen vegetables more than ever before. What was considered a sacrifice may well have helped make the American diet healthier.
What we didn't know then was that canning and freezing methods retain and even improve the availability of nutrients. For instance, canned tomato products have more lycopene than fresh tomatoes. Research from the University of Illinois at Urbana in 1999 found that canned and frozen vegetables retained their nutritional value because they are processed within a day of harvest. However, fresh vegetables are often transported miles away, resulting in a decrease in the nutritional value of vitamins and minerals. For instance, fresh green beans lose as much as 40 percent of vitamin C within 24 hours after harvest, corn a like percentage after eight days, broccoli at 14 days and carrots at 21 days.
Add organic to the list of attributes, and the nutritional boost is even higher. "We compared the nutritional panels of organic food and their commercial counterpart," says Martin, "and the results were significant. When comparing a can of Eden organic kidney beans with a conventional can of kidney beans [using the U.S. Department of Agriculture Nutrient database for standard reference], the organic beans provided 17 percent more protein, 55 percent more fiber, 42 percent more calcium and zinc, 14 percent more thiamin, and 25 percent more potassium," she says. In addition, the European Journal of Nutrition reported that organic canned soups contained an average of six times as much salicylic acid as nonorganic varieties. Salicylic acid is the anti-inflammatory in aspirin responsible for heart-protective properties. Researchers suspect that organic vegetable plants make more of the chemical as a defense against environmental pathogens.
In the conventional grocery industry, canned foods are considered a "dinosaur," and private-label brands have risen to the No. 1 or No. 2 choice among consumers, reports DSN Retailing Today magazine. But as usual, it's another story for the organic market. The Hain Celestial Group sells more than a dozen varieties of canned beans and plans to expand its canned organic vegetables line by the summer, says Jennifer Rubinstein, associate product manager for the Melville, N.Y., company. In addition, forecasters predict that as availability of organic frozen vegetable varieties increases, so will sales. So as consumers browse the aisles of your store looking for convenience and nutrition, expect organic canned and frozen vegetables to catch their attention and lose their wallflower image.
Kimberly Lord Stewart is a freelance writer in Longmont, Colo.