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E-commerce: the enemy of produce brands?

sprouts grapes
These grapes from the Sprouts Farmers Market e-commerce site look appealing, but is there room for branding outside of value-added produce?

I gave a talk last week in Tubac, AZ, to the Association of Table Grape Growers of Mexico at their annual Spring Summit. This was a repeat performance for me – I’ve previously addressed this group about grape merchandising trends in U.S. retailers.

This time, they asked me to talk about e-commerce, but left if it up to me to decide what angle I’d take to fill my hour-long time slot.

When it comes to e-commerce and a group of growers of a certain commodity, one thing jumps right to my head:

From my observation, the majority of retailers are finding it nearly impossible to market branded produce online.

That’s not to say there aren’t some who do it well. Fresh Direct in New York does a great job with specific promotions.

But that’s NOT what I see when I do online store checks.

Wait, what was that? ONLINE store checks? The majority of the growers in my audience in Tubac didn’t seem to be keen, though I did get quite a few nods when I said something about the local produce department being our first destination when we’re on vacation.

Everybody in this business wants to see how their product is handled at retail. Why aren’t we looking for it online, too?

I’m sorry to say there are a few things that aren’t going well for fresh produce online.


1. Does your product look good?

This seems like a no-brainer to me – at least now it does. I didn’t really think about it until I was in San Francisco at United Fresh’s BrandStorm conference. Jennifer Tillman, Insights Specialist for Sunoco, pointed out the obvious to attendees of her session about packaging. Much of the fresh produce world’s branded packaging doesn’t photograph well online.

Kroger, can we talk about this listing for grapes? It looks like a food safety advisory.

Sometimes, retailers aren’t doing themselves any favors, either. I’d like to have words with the web genius who posted this picture of a value-added grape pack for Kroger’s e-commerce site.

Mmmm. That looks tasty, right?


2. Are retailers even using your brand?

Spoiler alert: Most aren’t, especially if you’re not something value-added, like a bagged salad. In my examples for the grape growers, I found only three online listings where a brand was visible, out of more than a dozen stores. Two were Walmart, which was using a photo of a brand as a commoditized version of a clamshell of grapes. The other one was Whole Foods, which offered Holiday Seedless Grapes – a specific variety separate from red seedless grapes.

That’s great?

No, and that brings me to my third issue.


3. Even if it is your brand in the picture, the website often isn’t updated when a promotion is over.

Those Holiday grapes? Yeah, that screen cap was from March 20 – long after those are out of the market. What’s going to happen if a consumer is ecstatic to see their favorite grape available in March, only to find a standard red grape substituted?

This is a major growing pain for online grocery. The Wall Street Journal delved into nonsense substitutions by shoppers, like celery for celery root, and what these problems are costing retailers in both dollars and repeat online sales.

Trusting a shopper to pick your produce is the No. 1 barrier to online fresh produce expansion, according to the Power of Produce report from the Food Marketing Institute.

I’ve had my own issues with nonsensical substitutions, but I keep trying online grocery because it’s my job. Is Average Jane consumer this forgiving?

I felt like I had a bummer of a message for growers who have worked hard on product differentiation and branding, but it’s going to be a while before retail can catch up to how fast the fresh produce market changes.


Pamela Riemenschneider is the Retail Editor for Blue Book Services.