KANSAS CITY - Consumers buy with their eyes. Nowhere is that truer than in the grocery produce department, where color alone can pull a shopper into its aisles.

And to make colors pop, you have to have the right lighting, said Bill Plageman, vice president of marketing and product development for Oakland, N.J.-based Amerlux.

“There are a lot of colors out there — your lights should showcase them all,” Plageman said. “Color plays a critical role when laying out the produce department.”

Under the right light, meats look super fresh and marbled. Fish look like they were just pulled from the water.

And in the produce department, Plageman said, fruits and vegetables “burst with freshness.”

“Customers want to see the vivid, beautiful colors of fresh produce—and not lighting them properly can destroy that intent,” he said.

Under natural light, with its picture-perfect color-rendering capabilities, colors are vibrant. Textures come to life. And consumers are more likely to pick the well-lit fruit or vegetable.

“When you see a tomato that isn’t a nice red, do you think it’s old or perhaps not ripe? The right lighting can deepen the color and make the tomato appear as if it were just picked off the vine, ready to be eaten.”

Produce managers, Plageman said, must consider what type of rendering ability their lighting source delivers. If done wrong, lighting can oversaturate or undersaturate colors.

With the development of LED, color rendering has evolved and reinvented the in-store shopping experience, Plageman said.

“Today, we can deliver color as natural as the sun or enhance the natural color by slightly oversaturating the hue,” he said. “We never want to change color, but when you can add depth and texture to produce and other perishables, customers notice.”

The right lighting catches the eye of the customer. It makes them want to touch a fruit or smell the flowers. Most important Plageman said, it makes them want to buy.

Because online competition has chipped away at dry-good revenue, grocers are shrinking their center aisles and using LED lighting systems to draw attention to their renovated perimeter aisles, Plageman said.

Amerlux, which has more than 35 years’ experience lighting grocery perishable departments, offers its customers (and potential customers) free advice, free in-store mockups and help designing the right lighting scheme to help them sell more produce, Plageman said.

With the holidays upon us, now's the time, he added, to give the produce in your stores a color makeover. Even the slightest changes in color rendering will be noticed by the majority of shoppers, he said.

Enjoyable experience, flexibility to change

Tom Foss, national sales manager for Minneapolis-based Carlson AirFlo Merchandising Systems, said that based on his experience as a former produce supervisor for five years, the design layout of a good retail produce department needs to create an enjoyable shopping experience for the customer but also allow the ability to change sets quickly for seasonal product changes.

“Thoughtful groupings of commodities are another key factor in driving sales,” Foss said. “For example, put premium salad dressings by your bagged salad area.”

 Carlson AirFlo strives to give retailers the best equipment to merchandise those products in their stores, Foss said — equipment that shows product well and makes displays looks “abundant,” and that is easy to clean and stock without the unnecessary shrink. 

Retailers seem to be moving more toward mobile, refrigerated table units in the center of the product department, as opposed to the fixed, position refrigerated island cases and European tables, Foss said.

There is also a heightened awareness of product traceability and whether a product is home grown or organic. Creating displays that call out these specific customer products that are now a premium and key to a department’s success, he added. When retailers design a produce department, they need to create signage and displays that “tell the story.”

“We partner with our retail customers to begin a dialogue about what equipment will best fit their needs. Designing solutions that elevate their product and get recognized, customers will take notice and therefore purchase or possibly even try something different because of the appearance.”

Carlson AirFlo offers clients engineered drawings to guarantee proper fit of equipment and also offers the retailer a glimpse of how their cases in their departments will look before actual installation.

The most significant change the company has seen in produce as a result of COVID is the closing of retail salad bars, Foss said.

“We’re currently seeing more pre-packaged salads in containers, therefore providing newly designed risers and filler pans to help merchandise these new products in their former open salad bars,” he said. “Overall, there is still a lot of uncertainty surrounding COVID and whether or not that will have an overall impact on future produce departments is too early to tell.”

A more lasting trend Carlson AirFlo is tracking is  preference for shallower cases to increase the overall open floor space. Because of this trend the company has developed ThinLine by AirFlo, low-profile shelves that accommodate these cases and merchandise their products. It will also help customers to have the ability to expand on their current cases.

“Retailers are able to add an additional shelf per four-foot section. Increasing their vertical space in the case to accommodate more product in their dry, high density applications such as juice sets, kombucha, single served beverage sets, cut fruit or vegetable containers, meat and deli departments.”

Focus on the product

Chad Ott, co-president/owner of consultancy Storemasters, said it’s critical in a produce department redesign to make the department as “inviting and easily shopped” as possible and to ensure the product itself is what customers remember.

“We want the produce to be what the patrons are excited about,” he said. “We use the equipment, merchandisers, décor, interior materials, proper lighting, temperature all to create an environment that is pleasing, but mostly is there to house the product.”

Efficiency also is a must, Ott added. No department works without the people that stock, clean and service the customers.  To that end, it’s important to keep the back of house operations in a proximity that allow the employees to interact with the customers.

Huge changes in grocery produce departments over the years present designers with a host of opportunities, Ott said.

“Produce departments used to be potatoes, onions, vegetables in white cases or on bland merchandisers. Obviously, the vegetables and fruit are still there, but now we surround them with the great experience and environment.”

Storemasters aims to make its department designs work on many sensory levels. Is the lighting right? Does the department get natural light?  Is the department smelling fresh?  Is the design of the department unencumbered and laid out for easy and unrushed browsing?  Is the temperature right?  The right answers to those questions enhance the experience and make the patron feel comfortable while shopping.

Keeping product fresh would seem to be a no-brainer for grocery produce departments, but unfortunately, Ott said, it’s often not the case.

“We often see produce departments that lack that fresh concept.  The perishable nature of the fruit and vegetables is a daily battle for retailers and their employees.  Proper ordering, cleanliness and awareness of what is out on the retail floor is possibly the most common error in produce departments worldwide.”

COVID has largely spared the fresh produce departments in grocery stores, with sales remaining fairly strong. Ott noted one area in which the pandemic could affect the look and layout of departments.

“I have had a few conversations with grocers looking into ways of creating wash stations in produce to enhance the efforts to combat the virus.”