OPN Connect: Mark, you have moved from California to North Carolina with your new position at The Fresh Market. How do you see the landscape of organic fresh produce today?
Mark Carroll: From a retailer’s perspective, the growth of organic, fresh produce at the retail store has been driven by retailers of all sizes, but the most significant growth has come from larger retail chains. The sheer volume of a larger retailer has increased the demand of organics and I see this continuing to grow as the demand over the last few years has far exceeded the supply of fresh organics.
Producing fresh organics typically costs more and since the consumer is willing to pay a premium for it, growers are more willing to convert; this will help increase the supply of fresh organic produce. I see continued growth in fresh organic produce as the growers and retailers feed the demand. It’s good to note, that if retailers rely on organics as a point of differentiation and as more and more retailers get into this space and grow their organic program, many retailers will likely look towards additional ways to differentiate.
OPN Connect: What’s been the biggest transition for you in moving from Gelson’s in southern California to The Fresh Market in Greensboro, NC?
Mark Carroll: California is where so much fresh organic and conventional produce is grown and being a retailer with such close proximity, it made it easier to have fresh produce, as it is a short ride to the retailer. Being farther east now is a little more challenging, but the industry takes extra care to get great quality, fresh produce which will only help to make us a better retailer for our guests.
OPN Connect: What are some the differences and challenges you see in marketing and merchandising organics on the West Coast compared to your new position?
Mark Carroll: So much fresh, organic produce is grown on the West Coast and is easily accessible to a large population. Besides retailers, there are scores of farmer’s markets that are open year round and many of them feature growers that sell fresh organics. We had to make sure that we competed not only on organics, but with minimum delivery time so that we could have the freshest available. This model worked well to differentiate us on the West Coast and we marketed it as having the freshest available and integrated organics into the set next to the conventional produce. We also called it out when merchandising in the stores by using signage that clearly distinguished it from the conventional.
On the East Coast, we will use some of these same strategies including integrating fresh organics next to the conventional produce and clearly distinguishing it with organic signage. We will work on increasing the product turns by featuring fresh organics in our advertisements and will look towards growers and shippers closer to us to help supply fresh organics. The Fresh Market seeks out and sources the best quality produce that it can and this holds true for fresh organics. We’ll market towards the consumer looking for fresh, flavorful and delicious tasting food, and organic produce will have to meet this test as well. I believe that there are just as many consumers in the east that want fresh organic produce as there are in the west. The more accessible it is, the more we can satisfy their demand.
OPN Connect: How will the produce department change over the next 10 years? How will stores look?
Mark Carroll: It’s always hard to tell what the future will hold, as the competitive landscape changes so quickly in a short time span – just within a few years. I believe retailers will always exist and will strive to bring produce to consumers in a cost-effective manner. The discount retailer will always have their market, catering to those that want access to the cheapest product available. Online sales will continue to grow in the food business and the brick-and-mortar retailer that sells produce will only benefit if they can figure out a good way to sell good quality produce online. The store itself will have to create a reason to get the consumer to come to them rather than have them shop online or elsewhere and creating in-store experiences will help make it a shopping destination. The produce department will be perhaps the most important department in making the retailer the destination of choice.
OPN Connect: How can the organic produce industry be of better help to retailers to increase their organic sales?
Mark Carroll: More than ever, consumers want to know about their food. Is it organic? Is it genetically modified? Is it local? Where did it come from? Organic produce has clear standards. Consumers know this and they trust organics as a result. I believe the organic produce industry should ensure the integrity of organics is kept so the consumer will continue to trust that what they purchase meets the strict organic standards. Perhaps an individual company or grower could go above and beyond to assure the consumer that they have their controls in place so that buying their particular product meets, or better, exceeds the industry standards.
Another way might be for a company or grower of organic produce to grow, supply and offer the retailer fresh organic items with attributes beyond the health and wellness – organic items that not only represent healthy eating but are also great tasting. This especially holds true for fruit. From what consumers have shared with me, they prefer to see their favorite fruit that they buy for taste offered as organic at a fair price. I have heard many consumers comment that organic bananas taste much better than conventional. Whether or not there is a difference in the way the organic banana is produced and brought to the market, is secondary to the fact that there are many that have commented that they believe it to taste better and are willing to spend the premium to buy it.
OPN Connect: What are the hot organic items for 2017 -- items that you think will be possibly future trendsetters?
Mark Carroll: This is always a guessing game, but consumers want to know and trust that the products they eat are as real as they can be. They will read ingredients on labels to be certain they know what they are getting. The beauty of produce is that the consumer can see the ingredient in front of them – so ingredients aren’t necessary. Certified organic fresh produce adds an extra layer of trust so long as the organic standards are met. This will help keep all organic fresh produce at the forefront as a trendsetter in 2017.
Particular organic items that will do well will be those that eat well. Organic fruit with exceptional taste will be the hot item!