What do Honeybaked Ham, Harry and David, Omaha Steaks and Hickory Farms, among other food companies, all have in common with the average produce department?

Grab the opportunity

Armand Lobato
The Produce Aisle

They know how to strike when the iron is hot — specifically, they know when to push the “gift” side of their business.

By now, you’re in the thick of the December merchandising mode. Besides your normal ad displays you’re set up with end caps of heavy-hitter holiday items: sweet potatoes, cranberries, potatoes and onions as well as nuts and other baking favorites. It’s a carbon copy of Thanksgiving merchandising, with an added touch.

What’s left is the gift section. Sure, you’re already offering an assortment of fruit baskets. Here’s where I put in a plug for Produce Merchandising magazine, and the November Ten-Minute Merchandiser article "How to Build an Affordable Fruit Basket." Extra sales and profits beckon.

But it’s a category you have to pursue. Mark McCormack, the now-deceased sports celebrity agent and chief executive officer of International Management Group, said, “In our business, the windows of opportunity open and close with dazzling rapidity … I constantly have to remind people to seize the moment.”

In the last couple of weeks of the year, this opportunity goes beyond what even fruit basket sales provide (although this is still a welcome shot in the arm, despite those who argue that fruit basket volume isn’t what it used to be).

It’s time to consider what those mail-order companies have long realized: Sometimes, quite ordinary items can become gifts: M&M’s candy? Any other time of year this is a simple item on the shelf. Around the holidays, the treat comes in different colors and is packed in all sorts of gift configurations.

In the produce aisle, the concept means wrapping up anything that might be perceived as a gift: Tangerines; single layers of fruit with tuffs of excelsior in between, overwrapped and topped with ribbon.

If summer sausage can be seen as a gift this time of year, there’s no question a basket filled with in-shell nuts can attain the same status.

It never ceases to amaze me what people perceive as gifts, and the closer we get to Christmas, the more attractive those “under $10 items” become. I remember one creative produce manager that overwrapped four-pack artichokes with a dip mix on New Year’s Eve, slapping on bows (and a premium retail price). He sold out.

There’s not much of a risk, considering any “gifts” left over after the holidays can always be broken down into your regular displays.

In the meantime, have some fun in the endeavor, remembering what another Armand once said (Armand Hammer, industrialist): “Seize opportunity by the forelock, and see where it leads you.”

Armand Lobato works for the Idaho Potato Commission. His 30 years of experience in the produce business span a range of foodservice and retail positions. E-mail armandlobato@comcast.net.

Have any suggestions for marketing gift items in the produce department? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.