Supermarket operators are reevaluating, retooling and remerchandising their produce departments."

As brands playing in the fresh category go into innovation overdrive to satisfy consumer demands for “clean,” convenience and choice, grocery retailers are being challenged to rethink the produce department — continuously.

Across the industry, supermarket operators are reevaluating, retooling and remerchandising their produce departments, where on average a mere 601 items account for 11% of store sales, according to Nielsen figures.

The buzz at this month’s Produce Marketing Association Fresh Summit centered not only on which of the new, category-blurring items retailers would give space to, but what space those items would be given. While the produce category has not traditionally been known as a hotbed of innovation, the quest by brands and retailers to create — and maintain — a “fresh” experience is causing a bit of a bottleneck at the shelf. (Where would you merchandise guacamole in a squeeze bottle? In the center store with other condiments? The produce department?)

Produce buyers and department managers have always had to be nimble decision-makers. Mother Nature causes an early blueberry harvest? The planned assortment and merchandising strategies for prime locations change unexpectedly.

But, increasingly, it is the placement of new items driving more frequent, significant change. Buyers may swap out a once-hot, cold-pressed beverage for the trending phenom overnight.

The bumper crop of new items that play to consumers’ preferences for “fresh and fast” and simple-ingredient foods — coupled with a renewed focus on selling actual produce in the produce department — is putting more pressure on the department’s footprint. Some retailers are reacting by moving dried fruits, snacks and similar items to the center store to make room for new refrigerated units that can hold pre-cut produce and other ready-to-eat perishables.

Others are increasing space devoted to the spate of plant-based items, including dips, dressings and cheeses, and a host of “mostly prepared” and “almost-ready-to-eat” packaged SKUs. When it comes to produce, shoppers who clip coupons or bring their own bags seem not to mind the higher retails and not-so-sustainable packaging of kid-friendly and snackable packs or value-added preparations.

And what of the headline-grabbing plant-based meat category, which has moved beyond beef substitutes to alternative nuggets, brats and bacon? Decades-old plant-based meat alternatives, which were often merchandised in the produce apartment and purchased by strict vegetarians, are seeing sales surge as they’re moved to the meat section, where today’s flexitarians and other users are finding the newer, PR-generating, technology-driven meat substitutes.

The produce department is feeling the push-and-pull of placement like never before. Now’s the time for brands and buyers to work together to optimize assortment, space and shopper expectations.

Advantage Solutions

Steve Jacques
Director of Category Development, Advantage Fresh
Advantage Solutions

Steve Jacques joined Advantage Solutions in 2014. His career has included senior sales and category management roles at leading consumer goods companies.