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Pears are a relatively small item in the fresh produce department, but they are still important to retailers. Pears make up 1.2 percent of fresh produce sales, compared with berries at 9.7 percent, apples at 8.5 percent, and grapes at 7.5 percent.

But that’s accounting for 1.2 percent of fresh produce sales, are a small piece of the pie compared with berries (9.7 percent), apples (8.5 percent), or grapes (7.5 percent). But that’s 1.2 percent of a $7-billion pie, points out Reggie Griffin, retired vice president of produce and floral merchandising and procurement for The Kroger Company.

“Pears are a huge part of the business,” he told growers during the annual meeting of the Pear Bureau Northwest. “You’re not going to get a front page ad seven times in a five-week cycle like grapes, but you have a great product. You have to educate the consumer.”

Griffin said grocery chains have recognized that focusing on the consumer is the key to success.

To sell more pears, the industry must know who their customers are and understand what motivates them. It must find ways to encourage consumers to go to the grocery store more often, to put more pears in their baskets, and to be willing to pay more for them.

Griffin identified three Cs relating to the customer:

Confused: Today’s consumers are totally confused, for many reasons. They receive mixed messages about food. One day they learn that broccoli is good for them. The next day it’s on the Dirty Dozen list. They don’t know if local is better than organic, and the amount of choices in the produce department is overwhelming.

“Our job is to unconfuse them,” Griffin said.

Connected: You have to know the consumer better than anyone else. The best way to understand consumers’ purchasing behavior is not to ask them about their buying habits but to collect data at the cash register on what they buy.

Collaboration: Produce marketers who want to reach the ultimate consumer have to figure out how to collaborate with others in the industry.

“No one in the produce industry has the marketing budget of McDonald’s,” Griffin pointed out. “We can’t do a Got Pears? campaign like Got Milk? Long-term success is built through key partnerships with strategic suppliers who have the same goals of increasing consumption of produce,” he said. “Both sides have to win. Both sides have to share information.”

Griffin said the trend has shifted from a one-on-one relationship between a buyer and a seller to a partnership where suppliers and retailers work together on multiple fronts, such as IT, transportation, distribution, quality control, marketing, sales, category management, and food safety.

The produce industry is selling a tasty and healthy product, and it’s through partnerships with retailers that the industry will be able to reach the consumer with the right message at the right time, he said.

“The pear industry has a positive message to tell about its product, but there’s so much noise out there, I don’t think any individual can do it by themselves,” he said.

Displays sell more produce than print ads, and Griffin encouraged the pear industry to try to put some romance into their display materials by talking about the nuances of the fruit, the flavor profiles, and the farmers who grow it.  “People want to know where their food comes from,” he said.

Retailers need their suppliers’ help. Their capital costs, wage rates, and staff turnover are all high, and most grocery stores are lucky to make a 1 percent profit.

But the good news, he said, is that retailers are starting to put more realistic markups on fresh produce. “A lot of the retailers are starting to use produce as it should be used, and not as a cash cow to fund other parts of the operation. Produce is the single biggest reason consumers shop at a specific store. Retailers understand they can’t make a 50 percent markup any more.”­