The retail climate in the central U.S. is unique, according to produce consultant Anthony Totta.

“We are dominated by independent grocers who build relationships with their customers by giving people what they want,” said Totta, founder and chief executive officer of Grow My Profits and one of the consultants at FreshXperts, both based in the Kansas City metro area.

Nick Conforti, vice president at C&C Produce, North Kansas City, Mo., agrees the heartland has an unusual retail tone compared to other areas of the country.

“I think our regional retail market is one of the most competitive in the country — from prices to quality,” Conforti said. “And there is a nice mix between the big chains and local/regional retailers.”

The competitive nature of the region is partly because of the sheer number of retailers, said Gary Myracle, executive director of produce field procurement for Associated Wholesale Grocers, Kansas City, Kan. He said 25% of the retailers in the country are in a 14-state region in the Midwest.

Variety and competition translate into relatively low food prices for consumers and a tougher job for retailers who traditionally operate on tight margins, Totta said. Consequently, when he advises retail clients who want to increase sales, his advice usually includes suggestions on how to increase shelf life in the produce aisle to reduce shrink.

Totta is a strong advocate for the integrity of the cold chain, and he said as the last link in the chain, retailers all too often fail to maintain the same standards their trading partners use during packing and distribution.

“One thing I am waiting on is the first retailer to break out and reorganize the produce aisle with temperature and humidity as the guideline. When are they going to stop putting bells and eggplant in 35-degree cases?”

Totta said the tradition of displaying fresh produce in groups based on use, such as putting cooking vegetables together and salad fixings together, isn’t the best plan in terms of food safety and shelf life.

Mike Kemp, vice president for brand development for Market Fresh Produce, Nixa. Mo., said he doubts a major reorganization of produce aisles is imminent.

“A lot of retail people are pretty conservative when it comes to what they do in their stores, particularly in the produce aisle,” Kemp said.

Kemp and Totta both said education is one way to improve produce aisle organization. Totta suggested that the industry create two-minute videos, commodity by commodity, and send out one each week to retailers.