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Piquant Promotions: A Q&A with Howard Nager

As the Vice President of Business Development for Sun Pacific®, Howard Nager is responsible for some of the most popular brands in produce. From the iconic Cuties® mandarins and category-transforming Mighties® kiwifruit to Air Chief® grapes, it’s Howard’s job to oversee on-point presentation, piquant promotions, and to grow the scope of an already star-studded family of brands.

After more than 35 years in fresh produce marketing, guiding popular brands throughout many of the most popular categories, it’s safe to say Howard is an expert at pushing produce. So we asked him a handful of questions. From store-level strategy to nationwide campaigns, Howard weighed in…

Robert Schaulis: Are there any constants that retail merchandisers can apply, regardless of the product in hand, to help drive sales?

Howard Nager: My past experience has been across a number of high-volume categories: tropicals (bananas and pineapples), apples, cherries, pears, and now citrus, kiwifruit, and grapes. I would say that across all of those products there are a number of constants and similarities that merchandisers can apply.

Howard Nager, Vice President of Business Development, Sun PacificPromote the crop, not the calendar. Retailers should be focused on wanting to be ‘best to market’ and not necessarily ‘first to market.’ If the crop is a week or two late, don’t force your ad and settle for inferior product.

Be flexible on sizing and look to promote what the crop is offering. Sometimes this might mean being flexible on your specifications in order to take advantage of the next size larger or even smaller. Most times this is where the best promotable deals will be found.

There are many “non-traditional” time periods that product can be promoted. Sure, apples are a great back-to-school or fall item, and citrus is great for promoting during the winter months of cold and flu season. Every month presents an opportunity to structure a promotion or themed event. Mandarins are extremely versatile as a snack and can be promoted just about any time. Navels are great around the holidays, Chinese New Year, cold and flu season, and Lent. Juicing Valencias for a refreshing and healthy beverage during the hot summer months is a great opportunity as well. And don’t forget to cross-promote all these items with other produce items and departments in the store.

Robert Schaulis, Senior Writer, The Snack MagazineRS: What would you like to see more retailers do to take better advantage of marketing opportunities provided by companies like Sun Pacific?

HN: When you are working for a grower/shipper, there is a huge responsibility to the grower to maximize returns back to the land. What that means is that it is our responsibility to sell all the fruit that comes off the tree—not just the prime sizes, but the small sizes as well as the larger fruit. It is important to have a wide range of customers that can handle the different sizes and quality grades.

That being said, one way for a customer to take advantage of promotional opportunities is to be flexible on sizing, packaging options (meaning bulk, bags, or packaged), and to have better communication with the grower/shipper on supplies and availability, promotional opportunities and pricing, sales volumes, and ad planning.

"Promote the crop, not the calendar. Retailers should be focused on wanting to be 'best to market' and not necessarily 'first to market.' If the crop is a week or two late, don't force your ad and settle for inferior product."

- Howard Nager, Vice President of Business Development, Sun Pacific®

RS: Which metrics do you find most telling in terms of the efficacy of a marketing tactic in-store? How does one take a different/similar approach when assessing the effectiveness of a much broader marketing approach like a nationwide consumer campaign?

HN: In looking at a metric, I find that the most widely used and reliable is a year-over-year sales increase. Stores are traditionally graded on this metric within their own internal systems. For instance, a display contest can be coordinated with a group of stores—with an award provided, usually for some combination of creating and building an attractive display, use of POS material, use of tie-in products or display shippers, etc. Without a metric, this type of contest usually would be won by the larger stores. When using the metric of year-over-year percent sales increase, a smaller store can compete on a more level platform with the larger stores.

Nationwide campaigns pose a little different set of circumstances. There generally is a greater message that is being conveyed by the national campaign. For instance, we are running a national promotion with Disney for Cuties in February and March of 2019. This includes store-level execution of a display contest with display shippers to merchandise the product. In addition, it also involves social media, consumer prizes with the grand prize of an all-expenses-paid trip to Walt Disney World® in Orlando, Florida, a National FSI coupon, billboards in major markets, and the use of Ibotta couponing, as well as in-store radio. With so many layers, we are targeting a push/pull strategy of driving consumers into the stores looking for Cuties, and the stores’ displays will hopefully provide the pull by stocking up and purchasing additional volumes of product. An additional benefit of a national program is it works to further align our brand with both the consumer and retailer, building trust and consumer satisfaction.

RS: What are some of the in-store marketing tools that you find most successful in creating excitement for specific items in the produce aisle? Do these vary widely between different items like a clamshell for kiwifruit and bulk offerings of a branded apple?

HN: There are many similar tools that are used to successfully promote different items in the produce department. There are some nuances, however, depending on if the item is bulk or packaged. For instance, for our Mighties kiwifruit, which is packed in a clamshell, the package plays a critical role in the promotion of the product, whether it be conventional Mighties or organic Mighties. Because there still is a lot of opportunity to teach consumers about kiwifruit—how to eat it, nutritional benefits, as well as key attributes—we actually use a band around the clamshell to provide this information. In addition, the banding also affords us an opportunity to clearly differentiate the conventional and organic fruit by use of color and package graphics. In the case of Cuties, the package provides us the opportunity to promote the Cuties name, which can stand on its own in telling the consumer about the item. In addition to the package, display shippers, display contests, and demos that allow consumers the opportunity to touch and taste the product are all quite successful. Social media posting of blogs, recipes, and contests also work well across multiple product lines.

RS: What are some of the challenges associated with creating an ideal assortment? What are some of the “intangibles” that contribute to a well-merchandised produce department?

HN: Category management is a critical component of analyzing and assessing a successful produce department. Many retailers are able to completely address these issues, while others rely on a ‘Category Captain’ or some of their larger and trusted suppliers to provide intelligence and specifics on the commodities that they sell. That being said, there are some key areas to look at, such as the amount of retail shelf-space given to an item. For instance, some items in the specialty citrus area such as cara cara, heirloom, minneolas, and blood oranges should not be given the same amount of retail space as the mandarin category or even navel oranges, but there are times that they do warrant additional space on a side stack or incremental display. There are times of the season when these specialty citrus items can be promoted and given their time in the spotlight, and additional space should be allocated. This is also true for other categories, such as apples, with many of the proprietary varieties being given varying amounts of shelf-space depending on seasonality, promotion, and regional preferences.

Some other challenges might be competition from neighboring stores and formats. You might need to use more bulk versus bags in one store and more bags (value) versus bulk in others.

"Category management is a critical component of analyzing and assessing a successful produce department."

RS: At what point does the need for variety trump the profitability of any one produce item in terms of shelf-space?

HN: There is a fine line that is drawn in this area. In many instances, retailers must make up their mind as to how much space to allocate new items, specialty items, or those that come in and out during the season. Consumers generally are the final decision maker as to if and when a retailer carries certain items and how much space is provided. The case for variety is amplified by a retailer’s need for positioning in the marketplace. By this I mean if they are the price leader or present a value proposition versus an organic or full-service retailer; all of these things play an important role in how much variety is carried in the store. Not to disparage any item, but stores might not carry jackfruit, kiwano melon, or Hatch chiles because they do not have the customer clientele for those items. On the other hand, another store might have a display of all of those items and more because they want to present that image to the consumer—that the store can supply shoppers with all of their needs.

No two produce categories are alike, but some insights are so penetrating that they—ideally—shed light on the whole lot, and Howard’s thoughtful answers may be just the ticket to illume your next marketing move—be it store-level or writ large.