Wal-Mart aims to perk up produce sections

AP Retail WriterJune 4, 2013 

NEW YORK -- Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which is working to keep its produce aisles fresh, announced steps to improve the quality of its fresh fruits and vegetables

The nation's largest grocer and retailer said Monday it is making more changes in its operations, training and sourcing as it looks to increase sales of bananas, lettuce and other produce and instill more confidence among shoppers looking for healthier choices.

Changes include delivering produce from farms to store shelves more quickly by purchasing fruits and vegetables directly from local growers. It's also conducting independent weekly checks of the produce aisles at its more than 3,400 Supercenters, Neighborhood Markets and Express stores.

Wal-Mart, based in Bentonville, Ark., said it also launched a produce training program for 70,000 associates, including store managers, that teaches them how to better handle fruits and vegetables.

"We're listening to our customers and delivering on our promise to offer great produce at the most affordable price," said Jack Sinclair, executive vice president of the grocery business for Wal-Mart's U.S. division, which garnered 55 percent of its total sales last year in groceries, including produce.

The steps follow several commitments that Wal-Mart has made to make the food it sells healthier and more affordable since 2011. As part of that commitment, Wal-Mart reiterated Monday it's working closely with local growers and aims to double the company's sales of local grown produce by December 2015.

So far, the efforts to improve the quality of its produce appear to be working. During the company's first quarter, Wal-Mart saw mid-single-digit percentage sales increases in its produce business.

The moves come as fresh fruits and vegetables have become the latest battleground in the supermarket wars, fueled by shoppers' demands for healthier eating and the need for stores to differentiate themselves from rivals. Sinclair told reporters on a conference call Monday that it is seeing demand for healthier food from customers across all demographics.

But analysts say that despite Wal-Mart's pledge to make its food healthier, its produce often looks tired and well below the quality of rivals like Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, Costco and Kroger. C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group, says that at Wal-Mart, some of the "produce is fresh, some isn't."

Burt Flickinger III, president of retail consultancy Strategic Resource Group, says it's key for grocers to make sure they offer the freshest strawberries, cabbage and the like since produce carries 50 percent higher profit margins than canned fruits and vegetables. It also adds a halo to the store brand and fosters shopper loyalty.

"Consumers don't have confidence in Wal-Mart's fresh produce the way they have confidence in Whole Foods, Costco and other competitors," says Flickinger. He and others say that a big factor is that Wal-Mart has cut so much store staff that it doesn't have as many workers to stock the shelves in a timely manner.

Bradenton Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service