By now it is well established in the minds of grocery shoppers that fresh equates with locally sourced produce. And the quality and freshness of perishables is at the top of the list of consumer priorities in deciding where to shop. According to the 2015 Annual NGA–SupermarketGuru Consumer Survey, nine out of 10 shoppers said that high-quality fruits and vegetables were “very important” in determining their choice of a primary supermarket.
Driven by knowledgeable consumers who are increasingly seeking fresh food choices, independent grocers are among industry leaders in expanding their fresh selections in a variety of categories. Let’s take a quick look at what’s happening in fresh because of several growing trends:
• Nationally, fresh is making a huge splash in trendy restaurants, in part due to the creativity of “locavore” cuisine. As more and more shoppers prepare meals at home, they want to duplicate the flavors and varieties from dining out into their homemade meals.
• Shoppers have become more health- and wellness-conscious and believe that fresh is not just better for their diets, but also tastes better. This perception is being reinforced by an increasing emphasis on “foodie culture” that highlights fresh ingredients. A report from consulting company A.T. Kearney found that two-thirds of a sample of 1,000 grocery shoppers believe freshness is the most important criteria in choosing what foods to buy.
• The USDA estimated total locally grown food sales in 2012 at $6.1 billion, up from $4.8 billion in 2008. A more recent industry survey revealed that nearly 80 percent of retailers in 2014 reported adding more stock-keeping units for local food compared to their 2012 SKUs—a sure indication that sales of local perishables will continue growing.
While retailers have seen an uptick in consumer demand for high-quality fresh and local foods, the question facing many independent supermarket operators is how to keep up with demand while ensuring a competitive price for locally grown fruits, vegetables and other perishables.
One innovative project is under way through a partnership between NGA and the Farm 2 Store Network. The partnership is providing NGA retail and wholesale members with access to fresh category marketing and merchandising programs, such as Farmer’s Market programs and “Meet the Growers” events. This partnership with Farm 2 Store Network empowers NGA members to develop stronger relationships with both local growers and shoppers while creating a unique and educational shopping experience.
Supermarkets of all sizes are trying to deliver fresh and local food items to their customers, but independent supermarket operators are in a unique position to capitalize on this movement through the relationships they have already created with local producers in their communities. With their strong community roots and deep understanding of what their customers want, many independents utilize fresh as a key differentiator and are able to locally source perishables and establish their stores as the local produce leader in their regional marketplaces.
Whether it’s sweet corn in Ohio, peaches in South Carolina or apples in Washington State, independent retailers across the nation are seeking out local sources as a way to meet customer expectations with fresh perishables. In doing so, they’re demonstrating the sage advice behind the often-used aphorism: “think global but execute local.”
Peter J. Larkin is the president and CEO of the National Grocers Association. He writes a monthly column, “The Independent’s Perspective,” for The Shelby Report. This column also appears in Shelby’s July print editions.