If it?s spring, it must be grilling season. At least that?s true in a significant portion of the United States. When the snows thaw, the grills fire up in back yards from New England to Nevada. Like forsythias and tulips, grilled foods are a harbinger of all things pleasant: longer days, warmer nights, summer vacations, burgeoning backyard gardens and more.
For natural foods retailers, merchandising around the grilling season would seem a no-brainer. And many take advantage of the season to do just that. But, according to the people who make the marinades, sea salts and rubs—increasingly popular grilling complements—merchandising for the grilling season can go far beyond simply stacking bags of charcoal and aromatic wood chips in the meat department. Indeed, the meat department may be altogether the wrong place to merchandise the season.
But setting that issue aside for now, there are many largely untapped, creative ways to showcase food for the grill, especially through cross-merchandising—so say the vendors.
Cross-merchandising can be as simple or as complex as the retailer wants to make it. Signage is probably the simplest method. ?Signage directing the customer to the meat or fish department doesn?t require a lot from the retailer,? says Drew Starkweather, founder of Greenfield, Mass.-based Drew?s All Natural brand salad dressings and marinades.
But signage doesn?t offer the consumer a complete shopping solution, either. More complex cross-merchandising ideas include setting up displays that include all manner of food grilling complements, including recipes and menu plans. ?Then put signage up that says, ?Look, here?s dinner,?? Starkweather says. ?People are so on-the-fly these days; make it easy for them.?
Retailers also could work with vendors to create specific grilling menus, Starkweather says. ?They could plan out a menu and then have three or four vendors supply it. They could also do the signage and the recipe cards and then retailers could do endcap displays with all the vendors? products, plus grilling supplies.?
And put a price tag on it, too, suggests Mark Olson, president of Spring Green, Wis.-based Renaissance Farm, maker of the newly minted Zalta brand of herb-infused sea salts. ?Something like, ?Here?s your grilling recipe for four for $35.??
Then there are grilling demonstrations. ?Most vendors would be excited to set up demos,? Starkweather says. Working together makes demos affordable for vendors, and stores get prolonged exposure, he says.
Educating the natural foods consumer, as usual, is key. Retailers can boost sales by letting shoppers in on the latest grilled-food trends. They may be interested to know, for example, that grills are not only for fish and meat. Innovative chefs increasingly are grilling tofu, fruits and exotic vegetables.
In an undisguised plug for his Zalta salts, Olson says thyme-infused salt on grilled pineapple ?is just astonishing.?
And pineapple is just one fruit well-suited to the grill. Chefs increasingly are grilling fruit kabobs filled with chunks of stone fruit, mangoes, papayas, peaches, apples, pears and figs. San Pedro, Calif.-based Melissa?s/World Variety Produce launched fruit and vegetable rubs in 2004 because those meant for meat and fish often overpower the more delicate tastes of produce.
Even kabob skewers have taken a turn toward the exotic. According to Robert Schueller, a spokesman for Melissa's, sugar cane swizzle sticks make great skewers. Personal chef and nutritionist Anita Boen uses rosemary skewers. ?Thread veggies on long spears of rosemary to add flavor and make your presentation more interesting,? she says, adding that the rosemary should be thoroughly soaked in water beforehand to prevent burning.
Pizza making also has become an outside-grilling exercise.
?If you can cook it on a stovetop, you can cook it on the grill,? says Michael Stine, author of Mastering Barbecue, slated for publication next year by Ten Speed Press.
Stine says retailers could both entice and educate consumers by holding grilled-food cooking classes, the highlight of which could be pizza making. ?Top them with marinated veggies and goat cheese, then have a display of pizza stones, spatulas, marinades and cheeses,? he suggests.
Stine also says natural foods retailers would do well to educate their customers that grilling and barbecuing are technically not the same cooking process. ?Barbecuing is cooking at a low temperature, about 220 degrees, and slow; grilling is fast cooking at high temperature, 450 to 600 degrees.?
Natural foods retailers, in particular, also should remember that there is some concern about whether grilling is the most healthful way to cook. Some chefs say it?s healthy because it cooks off fat; others say burning fats have been shown to be carcinogenic. Most say, however, that the risks are not great enough to dissuade natural foods consumers from outdoor grilling. ?For most of us, grilled foods are not a high percentage of our diet and therefore not a major risk for cancer,? Boen says.
Where to merchandise
Back to the question of where to merchandise products for the grill: Many grilling-products vendors say the place to cross-merchandise is not in the meat or fish department but in the produce department. It?s generally a customer?s point of entry into the store and ?they generally have the space to do it,? Olson says.
Grillable fruits and vegetables are also colorful, they can be showcased in high-stack displays and they don?t need refrigeration. In addition, and decidedly not parenthetically, research has shown that 70 percent of produce sales are impulse buys, Schueller says.
Barriers to success
Despite all its advantages, good cross-merchandising presents a significant challenge for retailers—largely because it involves collaboration on several levels. Vendors have to cooperate and so do intrastore departments.
That?s why Starkweather and others say that, while retailers love the idea in theory, extensive cross-merchandising often gets back-burnered by natural foods retailers. ?It takes a lot of thought to execute well, and it requires moving product around the store,? Starkweather admits.
And moving products can be problematic because of the way store profit centers are set up, vendors say. As a result, produce departments tend not to be interested in giving up space to sell more fish or meat. ?What I?m realizing is that different departments have their own quotas,? Olson says. ?So there are some built-in inhibitors to creativity.?
But these barriers aren?t necessarily deal breakers and generally are confined to larger chains. Vendors suggest that the barriers may, in fact, work to the advantage of smaller natural foods retailers, who often have more flexibility to creatively cross-merchandise.
In the end, of course, it?s all about making it easy for the increasingly time-challenged customer.
?They aren?t necessarily always thinking with a list,? Schueller says. ?If you put solutions in front of them, they?ll buy the tools.?
Nancy Nachman-Hunt is a freelance writer and editor in Boulder, Colo.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 4/p. 30, 32