With increasing competition and a higher percentage of affluent customers looking for more variety and high qualitytasting produce along with a good deal, Montreal continues to challenge retailers.

Industry insiders agree interest in locally grown produce is stronger than ever.

Loblaws’ Grown Close To Home marketing campaign, now in its fifth year, continues to be well-received, said Eric Biddiscombe, senior director of planning for the produce business unit of Brampton, Ontario-based Loblaw Cos. Ltd.

After a few flat years, organics have made a strong comeback in the past year, said Francis Berube, manager of produce merchandising and sales for Sobeys Quebec.

But he said Montreal consumers still prefer to buy local fruits and vegetables rather than organic produce that has travelled thousands of miles.

Despite a tough summer, the fall harvest is bringing in enough quality product to carry the city’s retailers into the holiday season, Biddiscombe said.

Montreal also represents Canada’s mosaic of cultures, he said, including Italian, Greek, Middle Eastern and South Asian groups.

“Ethnic offering has been more of a strategic focus for us in the past five years as the population increases with first- and second-generation immigrants,” he said.

Berube said having the world on the city’s doorstep means making changes as simple as having more fresh mint on hand.

“In the past, Sobeys wouldn’t have carried mint in bulk,” he said. “Now, if a store needs 20 cases, we can get it for them.”

The berry category remains hot, Berube said, with items such as pomegranates, arugula, palmer mangoes, Honeycrisp apples and persimmons gaining in popularity.

Biddiscombe said convenience is important to busy consumers, and products that make meal preparation easier are a definite trend.

Biddiscombe also sees growth in the independent market, with the rise of specialty grocers such as Montreal’s Val-Mont chain, Fruiterie 440 and Epicia, which is using its expanded buying power to compete directly with the big chains.

“Customers want something different,” said Marcel Pare, vice president of Groupe Epicia, a year-old network of 30 established green grocers under four banners.

“Produce makes up a third of our stores but 50% of sales,” said Pare, who is considering a move into the city within two years.