By John Lehndorff
(This feature was originally published in Produce Business magazine.)
Nobody knows whether the Denver Broncos or the Carolina Panthers will walk off the field with the Lombardi Trophy February 7 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara CA, but produce retailers can earn a win before the kickoff of Super Bowl 50, America’s greatest day of national nibbling.
(It will be “Super Bowl 50” – not “Super Bowl L” – because few consumers know their Roman numerals anymore.)
It’s hard to overestimate the impact of the Super Bowl on the food industry. American shoppers spend more on groceries the week of the Super Bowl than any other week of the year, reported the Washington Post, and that includes the weeks before Thanksgiving and Christmas.
“The Super Bowl has become so pervasive; it appeals across generations, income levels, ethnic groups,” Phil Lempert said. Known as the Supermarket Guru, Lempert is a Santa Monica CA-based grocery business trends expert.
How big is it? 2015’s nail-biter between the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks was the most watched event in American TV history. The duration of the Super Bowl broadcast also makes it epic among American feast days. “At Thanksgiving you sit and eat for an hour or two. The Super Bowl is constant eating for three or four hours or more,” Lempert said.
Each Super Bowl season for three decades headlines have announced that vegetables – not onion dip, pizza or Buffalo wings – crown the Top 10 list of most eaten foods on Super Bowl Sunday. But closer scrutiny reveals that only about 25 percent of viewers said they consumed any kind of vegetable at all during the game with an emphasis on baby carrots and celery sticks, according to NPD Group, an independent market research firm.
The pre-game show: Season of snacking
The weeks prior to the Super Bowl are a critical opportunity for supermarket produce sales but the Super Bowl is really the exclamation point at the end of a 3-month season. “If you take a look at the figures it’s a sales season that starts at Halloween and continues to the Super Bowl and that’s the busiest time annually for U.S. supermarkets,” Phil Lempert said. It’s also prime time for produce managers to cater to health-focused consumers and other game day viewers with items to freshen up the fare.
Retailers tend to start their Super Bowl push by December 30 before the NFL playoffs begin, although the planning began many months earlier.
The biggest fresh produce star in Super Bowl marketing is guacamole. Avocado growers have transformed a regional and ethnic food into an all-American football game day necessity.
Last year AFM aired the first Super bowl ad ever for fresh produce reaching more than 114 million viewers. For the Super Bowl 50 broadcast on CBS, AFM has placed a guacamole ad to air during one of the first, prime commercial breaks after the game begins, he said.
“This is the most important time of the year for avocado sales and one our main peaks of marketing,” said Alvaro Luque, president of Avocados From Mexico (AFM), the Irving TX-based marketing group for the Mexican Hass avocado industry.
“Last year the two weeks prior to the Super Bowl were our two largest importing weeks in history. We shipped 50 million pounds each week,” he said.
The avocado promotion “Guac Nation” kicked off nationally Jan. 4 with 2.5 million coupons distributed, trade advertising and 17,000 additional cardboard displays for retailers. “These which will be located on the perimeter of stores in addition to avocados displayed in produce sections,” Luque said.
MVPs: Buffalo wings, celery and fruit?
Foods naturally associated with cities of the teams in the game are popular year to year, as is fare from the host region. In 2016 that’s the San Francisco Bay area. California sites have hosted 11 previous Super Bowl games. Some foods have become inseparable from the game experience itself.
According to the National Chicken Council’s 2015 Wing Report, about 1.25 billion wings were eaten in U.S. during the Super Bowl XLIX broadcast along with Frank’s RedHot Sauce, blue cheese dressing, and substantial amounts of celery sticks and baby carrots.
“This is one of the peaks parts of the season for us. That’s why we SKU very high before the Super Bowl.” said Chris Hannigan, VP of Marketing-Retail for Brea CA-based Ventura Foods, makers of food products including Marie’s Dressings.
The uptick in sales of Marie’s dressings and dips starts before Thanksgiving and has a series of peaks around Christmas and New Year’s and ends with the Super Bowl. “We really get three kicks at the can,” Hannigan said.
Not all the things being dipped in Marie’s dressing are wings, vegetables or pizza crusts. Increasingly consumers are choosing pre-cut and ready-to-dip fruit including pineapple, strawberries, grapes and melon. “Use of dressings on fruit is becoming more popular. We have a poppy seed dressing that goes well with melon balls. It’s another way to get fruit into the system,” Hannigan said. Marie’s is introducing two new fruit-forward light dressings: Mango Chardonnay Vinaigrette and Pomegranate Blueberry Vinaigrette.
Huddle around the watermelon helmet
“Among our greatest strengths is watermelon’s strong association with summer,” said Stephanie Barlow, senior director of communications for the Winter Springs, FL-based National Watermelon Promotion Board (NWPB).
Even though the availability of watermelon in usually good in late January, “the media’s receptivity to winter watermelon uses can be frosty,” Barlow said. According to a NWPB study, only 19 percent of consumers said they purchased watermelon in the winter compared with 95 percent in the summer.
The NWPB has countered these perceptions with a clever Game Day promotion featuring a simple football helmet carved from a watermelon. Consumers can carve it and use it to serve a melon-based fruit salad as an alternative to typically heavy tailgating fare. Retailers can leverage the Super Bowl focus by using carved watermelon footballs as an eye-catching melon sampling attraction in the produce department.
Barlow noted that an image of the carved watermelon football was a social media hit in 2015 with nearly 50 million impressions on Yahoo! Sports and other media outlets. It doubled traffic at watermelon.org with a spike on Super Bowl Sunday. The post included links to recipes such as Fire and Ice Salsa and Watermelon-glazed Barbecue Meatballs.
Reaching Millennials: Other dippers, other dips
The hummus and bean dip boom driven by health-focused shoppers and Millennials has proved there is still room to expand the dip market along with the dippers. Hummus didn’t come with a long chip tradition – it was traditionally eaten with pita bread. Vegetable dippers that don’t bring extra calories, fat and salt to the table have become the go-to edible utensil.
While chips-and-guac may seem permanently wed in shoppers’ minds, Alvaro Luque of Avocados from Mexico suggested another sort of chip may soon go viral as a guacamole dipper: ruffle-cut fresh carrot chips.
“They are easy, they have that crunch and they don’t get soggy. It’s just stepping back a little from tortilla chips,” he said.
“The younger generation are the ones asking that these fresher options are made available,” he said.
Consumers looking for healthier, high-protein snacks are a major driver in increased pistachio sales before the Super Bowl, said Joseph Setton, VP of domestic sales for Commack, NY-based Setton Farms, one of the largest pistachio processors in the U.S.
“Pistachios always were a popular nut during football games but they’ve become bigger as consumers look for healthier snacks that aren’t a taste compromise,” Setton said.
While the act of shelling pistachios has become part of the ritual of enjoying them, the availability of shelled pistachios have made them a favored ingredient. High protein-low carb diets have popularized pistachios as a plant-based protein source in appetizers, baked goods, salads and main courses, Setton said.
Setton Farms targets the whole season that peaks with the Super Bowl. “We offer promotional displays that key in on long term buying behavior with health- or taste-oriented messaging. They are assembled and ready to pull onto the floor. They allow extra display space for pistachios without taking any shelf space,” Setton said.
Pistachios (including shelled and chocolate-covered versions) are often slotted into holiday and Super Bowl displays next to pomegranates and chestnuts.
Millennials and others demand ease of use and don’t necessary want to follow a recipe, especially at the last minute.
“The week before the Super Bowl is one of the top selling weeks of the year for the guacamole mix,” said Samantha McCaul, marketing manager of Brockton, MA-based Concord Foods. The supplier of retail food products and ingredients offers companion items for fresh produce including packets of guacamole and salsa seasonings.
Concord’s in-store promotion is seasonal, focusing on the entire NFL and college schedule. “We’ve got a football-themed floor display this year for supermarkets that holds 144 units (of guacamole and salsa mixes). It’s usually right next to the avocados,” McCaul said, adding that the salsa and guacamole mixes are generally “impulse buys.”
In her tours of supermarket produce sections she has noticed one approach that clearly boosts pre-game sales.
“What I’ve seen a lot is bringing the Super Bowl party into the produce department and add some fun,” McCaul said. That includes signs, balloons and posters, she said, along with prime displays of party goods, avocadoes, tomatoes, peppers, onions, cilantro, lemons and limes plus other ready-to-eat vegetable and fruit packs.
Half Time: Seasonal produce puts on a show
Phil Lempert of Supermarketguru.com said he would like to see a more creative approach to merchandising ready-to-eat produce items.
“Right now it’s mostly party trays with celery and carrots. It’s really nothing exciting. It’s a huge opportunity to introduce less familiar fruits and vegetables (like those distributed by Frida’s and Melissa’s),” Lempert said.
“At any one time the average produce department has about 400 SKUs. Most people only buy ten leaving a lot of room for growth.”
Lempert added that premium produce can sell during a season when shoppers are willing to splurge a bit, but active merchandising is required.
“Beyond doing a lot of sampling, education in the store is critical. Have colorful signage with a description of how the fruit tastes, how to use it and nutritional information,” he said.
Sometimes it’s not so much “what” is being sold as “where,” Lempert said.
“We’re not seeing avocadoes, tomatoes, onions etc. cross-merchandised in prepared foods or the meat department very often. Maybe it’s because meat managers aren’t used to dealing with produce. For it to work right you need meat and produce managers to team up,” Lempert said.
The post-game show: The real diet season begins
Alvaro Luque said he has seen increasing interest among other produce groups to piggyback on AFM’s Super Bowl success and co-promote other guacamole and salsa essentials including cilantro, jalapenos, tomatoes, limes and various vegetable dippers.
With all those avocados in circulation Avocadoes from Mexico has seen a new trend in the week following the Super Bowl. “What we learned was what you can do the day after the game. A lot of the retailers have avocado sales that week. It’s an important day in terms of volume and price,” AFM’s Alvaro Luque said.
The day after the big game has also become the day that launches a million diets and weight loss resolutions put off since December 31. “We started the Fan-wich promotion to encourage the use of avocado as a sandwich spread and emphasizing its nutritional advantage over mayo and other spreads,” Luque said.
While the gridiron favorites – pizza, wings, dips and chips – are unlikely to be dethroned this year by baby kale salad, fresh vegetables and fruits are steadily taking a larger and larger piece of the Super Bowl pie.
Avoid penalties: Call it ‘The Big Game’
When it comes to signage and advertising retailers need to observe one final caveat: Call your Super Bowl sale anything but a “Super Bowl sale.” While journalists can throw around the term Super Bowl with abandon, the National Football League actively polices its trademarked name “Super Bowl” which can only be used by official NFL partners. Most retailers refer to the event as “The Big Game” or by some other obvious euphemism.
John Lehndorff is a Colorado-based food journalist and host of Radio Nibbles on KGNU-FM. Read his Nibbles blog at: johnlehndorff.wordpress.com