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Picking Fresh

Power Of Suggestion: Good Produce Section Yields Buyers

By William Weir

March 19, 2012

Radovich Tejeda, one of the owners of Romny Mini Mart on Broad Street in Hartford, marveled recently over the difference that a display can make -- specifically when it comes to fruits and vegetables.

"We brought [the produce section] to the front; we used to have it in the back," he said. Now, Tejeda often sees customers pick up some fruit or vegetables as they walk by, even though they came in for something else. Even kids will come in and pick up an orange or an apple.

"That's a big change from a couple years ago," he said.

Romny was one of the stores that got high marks from Katie Martin, an assistant professor in residence at the University of Connecticut's department of allied health sciences. Martin recently completed a study that looked at the produce sections of 19 small neighborhood food stores in Hartford and their customers' shopping habits.

The study found that for each additional type of fruit that was stocked in a store, customers were 12 percent more likely to buy fruit, and they were 15 percent more likely to buy vegetables for each additional type of vegetable stocked. Of the 372 customers who were surveyed, 84 percent were female, 54 percent were black and 40 percent were Hispanic.

Martin said her study, published in November in the journal Public Health Nutrition, was prompted by increasing concerns about what's known as "food deserts" -- inner-city neighborhoods that lack a large food market with a wide variety of healthful foods.

One frequently asked question is whether many small neighborhood stores fail to stock many fresh fruits and vegetables because their customers don't buy them -- or whether customers don't buy them because they can't find them.

Besides the variety of fruits and vegetables, the researchers looked at how fresh they were and how prominently they were displayed in the store.

"I think there is a perception that people don't really like healthy food, and I don't know that this is always true," Martin said. "[This study] shows that there is the demand for healthy food and if corner stores stock a variety, then customers would buy it."

She said many of the stores that the study looked at had a poor selection of produce, but not all.

"There's a lot of unhealthy junk food, but there are some of these that I call oases in the desert," she said. Romny Mini Mart was one of those oases, she said. Its produce section is one of the first things a customers sees when walking into the Broad Street store. It's brightly lit and offers a wide variety of fruits and vegetables.

Tejeda gives much of the credit for the display to the Hartford Food System, a nonprofit organization that works to increase access to healthful foods, and which worked with Martin on the study. Executive director Martha Page said the organization works with several stores on their displays and use of refrigeration equipment and suggests in-store events to help promote their healthful inventory.

Romny, which has been operating for 19 years, is hardly the only store in the area. There are small food markets every few blocks on Broad Street, but most have produce sections that pale in comparison to Romny's display. They're either small, tucked in the back of the store, or both.

Among the 19 stores in the study, each carried an average of 4.2 types of fresh fruit and 6.1 types of fresh vegetables. Some went well beyond that, like Carlos' Supermarket on Farmington Avenue, which features a refrigerated section that runs about half the length of the store, plus a sizable island of fruit. It's another one of the stores that Martin singled out as having a particularly good selection of fresh produce.

Sonnie Dennis, a manager at Carlos', said the store has long boasted a wide selection and caters to its largely Hispanic clientele by offering items like yautia blanca and plantains. "A few times, people will request different items and we'll try to get them," he said.

It's particularly important for inner-city stores to stock a wide variety of healthful foods, Martin said, because many of their customers don't have the means to get to larger groceries. Only one in five of the customers surveyed for the study had their own car. Affordability is another big issue. More than half of those surveyed were unemployed, and 70 percent were on food stamps. The study also found high rates of diabetes and high blood pressure among the customers and their family members.

Martin said she was heartened by the results of her study. Even though there's a good deal of room for improvement, she said, it shows that when stores change their habits, it can go a long way toward changing customers' buying habits.

"It's encouraging because over the past five to 10 years, people are starting to recognize how important the food environment is," Martin said. "It's not enough to provide food; we have to pay attention to what foods are available and affordable."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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