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Q&A: Merchandising Beyond the Berry Patch with Cindy Jewell

Do consumers want to see all the berries together, or should organic and conventional be securely separated? How intertwined are moves from the supply- and buy-side of marketing? With over 30 years in the produce game, nearly 15 of which have been spent steering the merchandising helm at California Giant Berry Farms, there aren’t many who have perspective on the berry patch like Cindy Jewell. The Vice President of Marketing has seen berry strategies evolve, alongside the push-and-pull marketing plays in that evolution, and answers key questions with a mind in the present, past, and what could come.


Melissa De Leon

Melissa De Leon: In looking at merchandising successes across your time with California Giant, what are a few moves that stand out?

Cindy Jewell: There are two areas that have always impressed me. First, the way retailers build on sales by merchandising all the berries together. Consumers love seeing the color breaks and options all together, especially when pricing encourages mixing and matching with buy two, get one, or pricing them all the same.

Cindy Jewell VP of Marketing, California Giant Berry FarmsSecond, is the ongoing debate on merchandising organics within the conventional display or separate in an organic produce display. I recently read a fresh trends research report on organic produce and the findings said the majority of organic shoppers prefer to have organics grouped into a separate section within the produce department. 70 percent said that they want organics displayed this way, compared to the 30 percent who wanted all produce intermixed as long as they don’t touch. That surprised me.


MD: Can you tell me a bit about the road that brought you to California Giant?

CJ: I spent the majority of my early career at the California Strawberry Commission, which gave me an opportunity to learn about the entire berry industry and the produce industry dynamics. From all the relationships I formed within the strawberry industry, I knew early on that if I ever had the chance, I wanted to work with Bill Moncovich and Pat Riordan at California Giant. They were always a company that had no fear and took risks to help move them forward and grow in the industry. Basically, I met with Bill one day and told him I wanted to come work for the company and, thankfully, he invited me on board. It was my opportunity to take everything I knew and learned about the industry, the consumer, and the marketplace, and to make a difference for one brand.


MD: What were some changes you wanted to see made when you came on board?

CJ: I really wanted to help bring a focus to showing the consumer the company behind the brand. I was focused on building brand loyalty and shaping our story. Much of that began when we positioned ourselves as a company focused on health and fitness through cycling and giving back to our community—the first few years were really focused on emphasizing our brand this way. We started from within by putting a gym in our office building, becoming a cycling-friendly business within the community, and eliminating unhealthy snacks in our kitchen (which didn’t make me very popular with the staff at the time).

“Partnerships are
key. We love working
side by side with our trading partners to create unique programs that make both of our companies successful.”

—Cindy Jewell, VP of Marketing, California Giant Berry Farms

MD: Looking back to where the berry industry was then and where it is now, what are some changes that have occured over the past 20 years or so?

CJ: I think the biggest change in the industry is the effort most of the large companies have made in building brands rather than selling commodities. Day-to-day sales still happen as the produce department gets filled up, but each of us is telling our story as the consumer wants to know more about the brands they are aligning themselves with. This started with food safety programs and has escalated from there to where we are today. The other big shift in the industry overall is the significant movement toward sustainability and responsibility. We are faced daily with challenges in both areas as our farmers comply with more audits required by customers, well beyond the food safety arena and deep into worker rights, sustainability, traceability, food waste, water conservation, etc.


MD: How much of those changes would you attribute to marketing and merchandising?

CJ: I think the challenges of the items I listed above have all been marketing opportunities. Each time we are faced with these hurdles it is a chance to tell our story. When we invested in an item level traceability program to help trace our berries back to the ranch in the event of a food safety crisis, we used that new capability as a way to tell our story to the consumer and built an entire website communication piece around it, calling the new program “Follow Us to Our Farm.” When asked about excessive food waste, we created an e-book called “Food Waste Free,” providing consumers with a book full of ways to help reduce waste at home. Each of the issues we face we try to convert into a marketing opportunity and enhance our brand with our consumer followers.


MD: What would you say the importance of working closely with retailers is? What does that look like for both the supply- and buy-sides?

CJ: The most important thing we can do as a supplier for our retail and foodservice customers is to know their individual companies and how we fit into their business, so that we can be a better partner. With so much data available today on sales, market share, consumer behavior, and shopping habits, we work much more closely with our key customers to meet the needs of the consumer. Today’s consumer is much more demanding as their shopping experiences are much more sensory. Ultimately, we focus on working together in treating each of our buyers as individuals, and working to ensure we succeed together. In the end, we are both just trying to provide the best product to the shopper at the best price, so we all grow together.

“The most important thing we can do as a supplier for our retail and foodservice customers is to know their individual companies and how we fit into their business, so that we can be a better partner.”

—Cindy Jewell

MD: Can you give some examples as to when a retail partner, or decisions on the retail-side, made a key difference in marketing and merchandising success?

CJ: A couple of years ago, one of our major retail partners did a significant TV summer advertising campaign promoting its fresh produce offerings and, specifically, it featured strawberries in its spots. We saw a huge jump in sales with this partner that year that really showed advertising moves the needle. Thankfully, it had communicated early about the campaign, and we worked together on forecasting volume well in advance, so we were prepared to provide the support needed and the consumer benefitted.

We also had a foodservice customer work with us on a new product offering and rather than just working with the sales department to focus on supply, we worked together with their marketing team to build on the story. They spent time in our fields and created a TV spot and YouTube video to launch the new product including the farming story behind the new berry ingredient. This was so successful that they have continued the summer offering every year since and have expanded it to utilize our other berries in additional items.


MD: Looking to the future, any recommendations for the buy-side to capitalize on the merchandising success Cal Giant has seen with their berry programs?

CJ: Partnerships are key. We love working side-by-side with our trading partners to create unique programs that make both of our companies successful. We want to continue to feature our brand as one that is delicious, reliable, and responsible. Our tagline is “Making a Difference One Delicious Berry at a Time,” and we mean it. Additionally, something that is very important to us is continuing to work with other produce brands that align with our values and goals. We know that shoppers buying our berries also buy a lot of other produce items, so why not work together and make a bigger impact? United Fresh Produce Association released a research report that says 55 percent of the trips shoppers make to the grocery DON’T contain produce—we need to work together to chip away at that number and get more fresh produce in the basket, one shopping trip at a time.


Truly, as the marketing maven herself points out, produce categories working together on both the buy- and supply-sides, even in new, unexplored avenues that blend our businesses, looks to be the way to continue to build each sector to its maximum potential. With the world and those eating in it continuing to change, and trends favoring our healthy, fresh-facing industry, the sky's the limit.