In the produce industry, when Wal-Mart talks, growers listen.
And this time the Wal-Mart word comes from a son of the industry, Mike Hulett, who grew up on a 40-acre farm at Lake Chelan, Washington, and who today makes orchard fruit merchandising decisions for more than 4,500 stores.
Hulett, senior fresh merchant for Wal-Mart, is a featured speaker Monday, Dec. 5, at the annual meeting in Wenatchee of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association, an event themed around continuous change. His topic is “Mega-Trends in Retail for Fresh Produce.”
In an interview with Good Fruit Grower previewing his talk, Hulett discussed how two generations of buyers are transforming the selling of food — and therefore the growing of food by farmers wanting to remain competitive.
In a nutshell, younger buyers are looking for food that aligns perceptibly with certain values and can be located, received and eaten in a manner that is both sensitive to their time-conscious lifestyle and sustainability beliefs.
Hulett called their approach to meal preparation “purposeful eating.”
For these consumers, growers have to produce fruit using horticultural techniques and retailers have to carry products that show “sustainability” or care for the planet in total.
Retailers like Wal-Mart increasingly are looking for these growers, a trend driven by young consumers who trumpet their tastes and values to friends on social media.
It is not difficult to find growers who see this dynamic and live by it.
Ed Kershaw, the chief executive officer of Yakima, Washington-based Domex Superfresh Growers, gave a talk in 2015 to the Yakima Downtown Rotary about how the industry has been changed by younger consumers. In the past, the public ate what farmers grew.
Today, consumers decide which apple varieties are grown and not grown, Kershaw said. They effectively function as the sales desk by telling friends via social media what to buy.
Another grower, Kyle Mathison, co-owner of Stemilt Growers of Wenatchee, Washington, can be seen on a company video, dressed in blue coveralls and talking about his passion for building “memory and trust.”
Mathison sends exactly the message young consumers are looking for: They want a grower who shares their values and who will provide fruit so good, it’s a must-have experience, the “memory.”
Hulett calls Stemilt’s marketing of such a message on point with the Millennial Generation born in the 1980s and the Centennial Generation born in the mid-1990s.
Both buy products that reinforce their sense of values. Millennials tend to have more disposable income than their brethren because they are further along in their careers.
Hulett sees five trends in younger buyers.
First, they are looking for what he calls food integrity. They want to know the food they eat and serve their families is safe.
This sentiment helps drive the growth in sales of organic fruit, Hulett said. Farmers must show care in areas such as food safety and security, employ ethical practices and support transparency and authenticity.
The second trend, purposeful eating, can be found in how young consumers do snacking or “scratch” cooking.
No, the young are not doing what Grandma did, making things from individual ingredients rather than from packages. (Who can forget Hamburger Helper?)
But the difference is, young people also want food quicker; they don’t want to take hours making a meal. Hulett said in the 1940s, a cook at home spent 150 minutes on average making dinner.
Today the average is 15 minutes. So how does the scratch cook today make things fast?
By using fewer ingredients, “pre-prepped” foods, simple recipes and cleaner living, said Hulett.
The third trend is fresh food. Today’s shopping cart has a much higher percentage of fresh produce rather than packaged food. Freshness is key.
“Local” is an important part of fresh perception. Serving both “local” and “value” sentiments is a small movement called Ugly Produce.
To serve this niche, Wal-Mart is trying this category where there is availability and value to customers with “imperfect” apples and gnarly potatoes called “Spuglies.”
Hulett’s fourth trend is the time factor, getting quality food quicker.
How does that play out? One way is the “grocerant,” the mini restaurant you can find inside a supermarket such as Whole Foods. Hulett said a further evolution is the grocery store that enables online ordering of groceries and a near-instant pickup by the consumer.
Technology coordinates the customer order, the gathering of items and delivery to the customer whose arrival is “announced” by, say, the consumer’s smart phone.
Wal-Mart and Amazon have both launched services like this, which appeals to a parent who may have a sleeping baby along and doesn’t want to get out of the car.
This trend is one reason you’ll see a slowdown in construction of new stores, said Hulett.
Hulett’s fifth trend is the foodie culture. Younger consumers may not have a lot of excess income but they insist on quality food where taste is an experience.
This helps explain the added popularity of an apple variety such as Honeycrisp versus Red Delicious, as well as the club variety explosion.
Honeycrisp fetches a premium price even though it’s not the best looking apple. The crunch, taste and experience of a Honeycrisp excites people. Hulett said Honeycrisp has brought more people back to eating apples.
Foodies will also pay more if a purchase resonates with values. Certainly, Starbucks makes a fortune by marketing their $3 lattes as the product of sustainable agriculture.
Hulett said while earlier generations focused on cost, younger consumers have different motivations.
“They want to buy products where they know the origin and that the farmer is taking care of the land, taking care of the people,” said Hulett. They are willing to pay a premium to get that.
“If they know that a farmer is doing a good job contributing to the environment, is concerned about water use, labor, health and future generations — that means something to them,” he said.
Hulett’s message to growers is to think how their own practices meet the new demands.
Growers will need to make sure horticulture practices match this ethic in provable ways, because if consumers find out they aren’t getting the truth, they can punish via social media.
This is one reason why Wal-Mart and others conduct audits to verify growing practices.
Growers also need to help tell their own stories, working even more with marketing people, so consumers know how food is grown, who grows it and feel a connection to the farm. For growers, it certainly means work, but it pays off with a powerful connection between grower and buyer.
“Everyone has to move in that direction because we all want new customers and repeat purchases,” said Hulett. •
– by O. Casey Corr