Ugly produce: a can't-miss business opportunity

If you could buy healthy, nutritious produce that looked a little different for 30 to 60 percent off the cost of regular produce, would you be interested? Tell your grocer. 

Tony Avelar/Staff/File
Mynor Bac, a produce clerk, loads the shelves with fresh produce for shoppers at a supermarket in Palo Alto, Calif. Globally we have a substantial wasted produce problem; convincing supermarkets to sell produce that doesn't meet their strict aesthetic standards could be part of the solution.

This is a guest article by Jordan Figueiredo, a zero-waste professional and food waste activist from California, United States.

If I told you that you could buy healthy, nutritious produce that looked a little different for 30 to 60 percent off the cost of regular produce, would you be interested? Or if you were a grocer and you could raise store traffic and sales and reduce food waste by selling different—some say ugly—produce, would you be interested? Worldwide, both consumers and grocers are saying a loud yes to “ugly” produce. Yet, the economic giant that is the United States has not seen any grocers bite. So, as the business case for ugly fruit and veg keeps building, will U.S. grocers grab this low-hanging fruit, or will they leave it to rot in the land of plenty?

Globally we have a substantial wasted produce problem; 20 to 40 percent of all producegoes uneaten, mostly because it does not meet strict grocer cosmetic standards for size, shape, or color. At the same time, one in two people on the planet are malnourished—and certainly in need of more affordable, nutritious produce. What if the solution to these issues was staring us right in the face? Could ugly produce sales be the key?

Environmental and health reasons aside, there is a business case for selling ugly produce. And, in 2014, French supermarket Intermarché put these “inglorious” fruits and vegetables on a global stage with highly popular and creative marketing campaign that included an attention-getting viral video. As a result, Intermarché raised store traffic 24 percent, and completely sold out of misshapen produce. Then, five French chains followed suit with their own campaigns, as did many others all around Europe. AustriaGermany,Irelandthe Netherlands, and Switzerland all found striking success in ugly produce. Large grocers in U.S., however, decided to stay on the sidelines.

Then, early on this year, Australian grocery giant Woolworths (“Woolies” to locals) inaugurated a similar fun, character-based ugly produce campaign called the Odd Bunch. The campaign was a wild success, with 3.6 million kilos of produce sold at a discount, resulting in a 40 percent increase in incremental sales.

Perhaps what U.S. grocers need is some star power to grab ugly fruit and veg from its wasted fate. In January 2015, chef, author, and TV personality Jamie Oliver promoted Asda’s “Beautiful on the Inside” line,  and consumers proudly shared their “wonky veg” photos and stories on social media. While some U.K. stores such as Morrison’s,Sainsbury’s, and Waitrose had been quietly selling weather-blemished produce for some time, the Asda campaign made a big splash. Shortly after, Oliver even pitched for Woolies’ Odd Bunch.

Late in 2014, North America saw its first corporation-marketed ugly produce. Alberta, Canada, Safeway stores, in partnership with Red Hat Co-operative Ltd., promoted the misshapen goods with a lovable character-based message; produce starred in “The Misfits: Rise of the Rejects” blockbuster-themed advertisements. Safeway offered the imperfect fruit and veg at a 30 percent discount, and the program was well-received.

According to Betty Kellsey, public affairs manager at Safeway, the success of the Misfits has the grocery powerhouse currently planning this year’s rollout of misshapen produce. If U.S. grocers worry that demand for more expensive “regulars” would decline, Kellsey said Safeway’s customers consistently purchased both grades of produce.

In March, Canada’s uglies expanded east when grocery giant Loblaw debuted its Naturally Imperfect line at its No Frills, Real Canadian, and Maxi chains in Ontario and Quebec. While it’s only been a few weeks, Dan Branson, Senior Director of Produce at Loblaws told me that they believe the program has been a success.

Despite global success (even in North America), large U.S. grocers refuse to participate in the trend, while ugly fruit and veg continues to captivate the world with low prices and charming aesthetics.

You can take action to “ask for ugly” in the U.S. by sharing this article, and by supporting my @UglyFruitAndVeg Twitter campaign. It has almost 10,000 followers who retweet and favorite posts hundreds of times daily. The campaign has received an outpouring of mediaand food-leader support and can be found on InstagramFacebook, and the web too. So please, support @UglyFruitAndVeg, because all produce deserves to loved and eaten, not wasted! 

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