Asparagus sales will go up if retail displays are kept interesting.

Los Angeles-based Gourmet Trading Co.’s marketing manager, Julia Inestroza, said the most important suggestion she offers retailers is to be sure an asparagus display keeps the product fresh.

“I see too many times when I do merchandising trips and (the asparagus is) laying on its side or it’s been misted,” Inestroza said.

To lengthen shelf life, asparagus should be kept standing upright on a wet towel and it should not be misted. Standing it in ice water works, but Inestroza said she hesitates to recommend that because some health regulations might not permit it.

Another tip asparagus marketers offered retailers is that a variety of sizes, colors, bulk and packaged items boosts sales.

“If they (customers) buy a traditional 1-pound bunch this time, maybe next time they’ll buy a bunch of white asparagus or a package of pre-trimmed asparagus tips,” said Charlie Eagle, vice president of business development for Southern Specialties Inc., Pompano Beach, Fla.

“We like to create options for the consumers and have them near each other to create more appeal.”

Shippers said most retailers display just one size of asparagus at a time, but they are encouraging retailers to display different sizes together.

“Take a look at jumbo-sized asparagus,” said Dave Mol, president of Mol Produce Co., Grand Rapids, Mich. “Contrary to popular opinion, the larger asparagus is actually the most tender.”

Tom Tjerandsen, marketing consultant to the California Asparagus Commission, El Centro, said offering multiple sizes substantially increases retail sales. Walter Yager, chief executive officer of Alpine Fresh Inc., Miami, said his company often gets calls from consumers wanting to know why they can’t find different sizes of asparagus in their supermarkets.

“When you’re going to eat a big steak at home, people prefer to put extra-large or jumbo asparagus with it,” Yager said. “But when you’re serving it with fish, it looks kind of funny with jumbo.”

Large-diameter spears work better for grilling, while smaller ones are good for chopping and using in frittatas or stir fries, said Cherie Watte Angulo, executive director of the commission.

Not everyone agreed that the U.S. market is ready for large asparagus spears, though. Jeff Friedman, president and sales manager of Carb Americas, Pompano Beach, said many U.S. consumers maintain the belief that smaller spears are more tender when cooked.

“That’s why you see retailers trending to using small sizes,” he said.

Hallows recommends retailers merchandise asparagus in two locations. One location is in a wet rack, standing in clean water. The other is in a lead position in the produce department standing in water on a dry display. He suggests cross merchandising asparagus with chicken breasts, displaying green, white and purple asparagus together, or placing vegetables such as baby carrots and pepper slices with asparagus in overwrapped trays.

Good signs are important in selling asparagus at retail. Retailers should use point-of-purchase materials to draw shoppers to asparagus displays, Tjerandsen said.

“It’s a high-impulse purchase item,” he said. “You have to really call attention to it.”

The San Francisco Wholesale Produce Market has a new program to help local retailers sell Bay Area asparagus. Many consumers in the area prefer locally grown produce, so the market worked with a design firm to create point-of-sale materials that distributors can provide to their customers, said Michael Janis, general manager.

The initiative promotes asparagus that is grown within a 160-mile range of San Francisco. Materials include cards for racks and posters. Retailers had requested more information about local produce so they could communicate it to their customers, said Scott Salisbury, manager for Jacobs, Malcolm & Burtt Inc., San Francisco. He said the initiative has gotten good support and he expects it to expand to other local items.

Tim Hallows, Western region marketing manager for Mission Produce Inc., Oxnard, Calif., said offering recipes at the point of sale is a good way to inform shoppers about the many ways to prepare asparagus. Mission provides display-ready boxes, recipes on bags and other point-of-sale materials.

Gourmet Trading offers a merchandising pack during Washington asparagus season, Inestroza said. It promotes asparagus for grilling with bilingual English and French or English and Spanish tags, and 11 inch by 7 inch POS posters. The company has used the pack for several years.

Carb Americas can work with retailers on point-of-purchase fliers, endcap promotional programs and in-cart advertising, Friedman said. The in-cart ads are small cardboard inserts for shopping carts that advertise asparagus and feature the CarbAmericas logo and the retailer’s logo.

Carb Americas supplements its 11-pound case program with a value-added case of 10-ounce bunches of asparagus. The bunches are packed 17 to a box, instead of the typical 11 1-pound bunches in a box, which reduces the per-bunch freight costs and allows retailers to advertise at a lower price, Friedman said. The 10-ounce bunches are rubberbanded and labeled with traceability stickers.

“That program can work for anybody,” Friedman said. “Some want high margins with lower volumes, some will take the high volumes with lower margins. It’s up to the retailer.”

While packaging adds cost to items, it also offers advantages. Inestroza said there is a move toward more bagged asparagus, which is easier to merchandise and keep fresh. Bags can eliminate the need for moist trays and some bags extend shelf life. Gourmet Trading bags custom packs with private labels or with multiple colors of asparagus.

In January, Gourmet Trading added a second flow wrap machine for bagging with StePac Xtend films. Several other packers said they used similar machines.

“We think asparagus has a great future in overwrapped trays,” Hallows said.

Mission Produce offers breathable bags, overwrapped trays and bulk asparagus.