TUBAC, Ariz. — Does fresh produce matter when it comes to retail grocery success?

Ask Food Marketing Institute’s Rick Stein.

Winning in produce means winning in the total store, said Stein, FMI’s vice president of fresh foods, during his Nov. 2 presentation at the Nogales-based Fresh Produce Association of the Americas’ 49th Annual Produce Convention.

The grocery store is a doughnut, and the center of the store has become the hole.

Stein said retail growth was flat in 2016 and slow in 2017, and that while new grocery shopping channels such as online ordering and delivery have hurt sales, the bigger reason is that consumer preferences are favoring fresh foods.

Stein said location used to be the prime reason shoppers chose a grocery store, but FMI research finds the top three reasons for selecting a store are price, produce and meat.

Millennial shoppers, he said, remain very price conscious.

Along with shoppers making quality produce purchases a priority, they’re being more adventurous.

Half of shoppers questioned as part of FMI’s 2017 Power of Produce survey of 1,700 consumers said that while they have their favorite produce items they always buy, they’re looking for new fruits and vegetables to try.

In fact, Stein said cross-merchandising opportunities with items in the produce department is a way to revive stale growth in other areas of the store, such as deli and packaged foods.

Despite all the press that “ugly” produce and the desire to reduce “food waste” receive, FMI research suggests consumers remain suckers for a pretty face.

Nearly half of consumers surveyed prioritize appearance first when selecting fruits or vegetables.

While a judgmental pessimist might say these shoppers are being superficial and wasteful, Stein framed their preference for pretty produce as helping drive impulse purchases.

Clearly Mr. Stein’s marketing glass is half full.

Good on him.

If an item doesn’t pass consumers’ pretty produce test, FMI survey data suggest 56% will substitute a different produce item, Stein said, but 46% will just forgo the item.

So, to make the sale your produce needs to show up and look good — check.

What about food safety, you ask?

Well, let’s just say consumer assumptions and reality aren’t neighbors.

Consumers in FMI surveys ranked produce from farmers markets as the safest, then grocery stores, with imported produce being perceived as the least safe.

Not surprisingly, this drew some bemused laughter and eye rolls among a crowd thick with Nogales importers.

Fred Wilkinson is The Packer’s managing editor. E-mail him at [email protected]

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