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In the Trenches: Will Iceberg lettuce make a comeback?

In my area, it is somewhat unusual to find a wedge of Iceberg on restaurant menus anymore. However, we happen to have a local restaurant in town that has that very item on its list. I often order it draped in chunky Roquefort or blue cheese dressing, which makes for an outstanding meal in itself.

Iceberg lettuce was so popular at one time that the displays in the retail stores were massive and the employees couldn’t stock it fast enough to keep up with the demand. Well, what happened to its popularity since that point in time? More important, what happened to all those large displays?

Iceberg head lettuce has gone through some interesting evolutionary phases during its long history as a popular produce item.

For example, in much earlier years it took around 21 days for an entire railcar of lettuce to be shipped from California to New York. Ice was used to cover the heads of lettuce in shipping. Thus, the name “Iceberg” was given.

In later years, Bud Antle introduced the vacuum cooling process to the Iceberg industry, causing the changeover from ice-packed wooden crates to field packing in corrugated cartons.

Iceberg head lettuce had no real rivals to compete against, as it grew stronger in demand by shoppers. As years passed, consumers began to pounce on anything that appeared innovative in fruits and vegetables, including new items, varieties, packaging and particularly convenience.

The era of the 1970s, 80s and 90s launched new and interesting avenues for produce, as the industry advanced into the future at light speed.

Like some of the other items in the produce industry, head lettuce either met with new variety competition or became an ingredient in a different capacity, such as packaged salad blends. This has become common in our industry.

Just consider regular carrots, which have grown in the category and now must compete with the baby peeled, sliced, sticks, shredded and crinkle cut.

In 1978, the California Iceberg Lettuce Commission was formed to help promote its main product — head lettuce. Representatives from the commission started hitting the road calling on numerous retailers across the country. Although they were not actually involved with any sales transactions, their main objective was to give facts on crops and entice the retailers to expand displays of Iceberg lettuce in the stores by just a couple more heads wide.

They were a unique group that carried much communicative value between grower-shipper and the retailer.

As they made more and more calls on retailers, the movement on Iceberg lettuce increased immensely. Unfortunately, the CILC eventually closed its doors and became another footnote in the produce industry history books.

During the 1980s, retailers began increasing the size of stores and especially produce departments. This called for more product variety to fill additional display space. During this period of expanded displays, Romaine, Green Leaf and Red Leaf, along with other lettuce varieties, rapidly grew in popularity with consumers.

Intense advertising promotions also increased the sales percentage of the leafy lettuce. Iceberg head lettuce began to feel a strong competition from those other varieties.

By the early 1990s, the big packaged salad mix boom began its entry into the arena. Retailers began concentrating on special display sections of new and exciting blends of value-added fresh-cut salads that were very friendly and convenient for consumers. This again took a chunk out of the Iceberg lettuce display space in the produce department. Thus, the percentage of Iceberg lettuce sales began to drop, while other lettuce varieties climbed.

Growers and shippers of Iceberg lettuce were suddenly jumping on the bandwagon from everywhere by introducing their own brands of packaged salad mixes during the boom period. Therefore, Iceberg head lettuce got less and less promotional attention. Packaged salad mix punched Iceberg lettuce right square in the eye and injured it as a major player in the ring.

Ever since the fresh-cut packaged salad mixes emerged, Iceberg has felt cutbacks in off-shelf displays and advertising promotions. Salad mixes snuck in and took over the pace, capturing a large percentage of produce sales.

After years of enthusiastic salad-mix promotions, gross profit budgets in the produce department increased dramatically. Being held accountable to achieve the high grosses, produce directors began concentrating on controlling shrink. This pressure changed some of the aggressiveness of displays by retailers and the stocking levels in the stores began to dwindle. Some produce departments were even instructed to display no more than one layer of product.

With the intense shrink programs hitting the stores, merchandising became threatened. Every item was scrutinized and the urgency to lower shrink became more pronounced.

Packaged salads have sell-by dates, and many produce managers cut back on the slower movers and stocking levels to avoid losses as part of cutting shrink.

Meanwhile, the old reliable head of lettuce is inching up in sales little by little. It has favorable shelf life and is still preferred over all other lettuce varieties by shoppers.

So the question remains: Is Iceberg lettuce in the process of making a comeback again at the retail level? It most likely could if every retailer increased the width of their displays by another two heads.

Ron Pelger is the president and CEO of RonProCon, a consulting firm for the produce industry, and the chairperson of FreshXperts LLC, a consortium of produce professionals. He can be reached by phone at 775/853-7056 or by email at ronprocon@gmail.com, or check his details on freshxperts.com for more information.