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Preferred surgeMidstate grocers see demand for local products

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Giant Food Stores night manager Steve Dell restocks a display that makes PA Preferred products more visible at the Lititz Pike store in Lancaster County. photo/Amy Spangler
Giant Food Stores night manager Steve Dell restocks a display that makes PA Preferred products more visible at the Lititz Pike store in Lancaster County. photo/Amy Spangler

A law establishing PA Preferred as the state's official agricultural products brand hopefully will encourage more retailers to get on board because of the initiative's increased permanence, the bill's author and a trade group said.

The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture has operated a licensing process for businesses to employ the stamp since 2004.

But some companies had been hesitant to invest in using the brand because the program was created by the executive branch, leaving it susceptible to administration changes, said state Rep. Stephen Bloom, R-Cumberland County.

"It could have vanished overnight," he said.

Bloom sponsored House Bill 1424, which Gov. Tom Corbett signed in the fall, to make PA Preferred a more permanent creation of the Legislature. Conversely, it now would require an act of the Legislature to do away with it, he said.

The act was Bloom's first piece of legislation to become law. It focused on an issue he zeroed in on quickly after taking office about a year ago, Bloom said.

It was a relatively simple fix that can do some good and doesn't cost the state anything because the licensing infrastructure already exists, he said. Bloom said he has heard retailers are excited about the change and is interested to see whether more will get on board.

The marketplace for state-based brands such as those for California dairy products is becoming increasingly competitive, said Mark Blake, professor of marketing at York College.

It's important for Pennsylvania to strongly market its products to consumers who increasingly want to know where their food comes from, he said.

"And we have something to brag about here (in Pennsylvania)," Blake said.

Items branded as coming from California or New Jersey — states with strong marketing initiatives —are appealing as an extension of buy-American sentiments, he said.

There have been changes over the years to Pennsylvania agricultural branding initiatives, making the legislation for a particular program a great idea, said Randy St. John, senior vice president of the Pennsylvania Food Merchants Association and Pennsylvania Convenience Store Council.

Retailers have been hoping that the state and stakeholders would settle once and for all on a particular slogan or name, he said. More merchants likely will sign onto the program now, St. John said.

Lancaster County-based Darrenkamp's Food Market did not participate in PA Preferred but would be looking into it, said Tim O'Donnell, director of marketing for the company with three midstate locations.

Locally grown and manufactured products mean a lot to consumers because there seems to be a greater sense of community today, he said.

People want to know they can trust who they buy from, and people tend to feel safer and more confident that a local product is a quality item, O'Donnell said.

There also are potential ripple effects, he said. If branding encourages shoppers to buy a local food manufacturer's product, then the manufacturer can hire more workers who then have money to shop in local stores, O'Donnell said. Transportation costs also could be lessened, he said.

"There is a lot to it," O'Donnell said.

Cumberland County-based Giant Food Stores is a longtime participant in PA Preferred.

Although the company does not publicly break down specific sales figures for competitive reasons, Giant spokesman Chris Brand said there is evidence that consumers have embraced the products.

PA Preferred items rarely have performed poorly in Giant's stores, and the firm is pleased to know the program should be around for a long time thanks to the legislative endorsement, he said.

Giant's promotions include a stand-alone rack exclusively for local products. The successes have encouraged Giant's team to find and partner with more regional suppliers, Brand said.

There are other potential advantages to working with local businesses. If greater shares of the products shoppers want come from the local area instead of from across the country, it can increase business efficiency, he said.

Brand said, "We know it is true that when you buy local, the transportation miles are decreased."

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