The ever-present staple item sees an increase in consumption because of increased attention to varieties, versatility and creative marketing.
There are many layers to onion merchandising. Retailers can peel back a few to reveal easy and effective strategies for marketing, promoting, and most importantly, selling this ubiquitous vegetable in all its varieties.
There may be no single contributing factor that explains expanding onion sales, but several different variables are coming together to keep the category healthy. “The overall onion category continues to grow, albeit at a slow and steady rate,” says Matt Curry, president of Curry and Company, based in Brooks, OR. “A lot of the growth has to do with your demographic area also. For example, in regions with a heavy Hispanic population, you continue to see growth in the sales of white onions, which are popular in countless recipes.”
Yellow onions still keep their top spot with traditional retailers, but sweet onions are experiencing an increase in sales as well. Part of this can be attributed to consumers looking for local and regional product. “We’ve had nice success the past couple of years with our local sweet onions grown in the Willamette Valley of Oregon,” says Curry, “It has been a nice growth item with us with select retailers.”
“The yellow is still the top seller by far,” reports Ron Myruski, owner of Myruski Farms, Inc., based in Goshen, NY, “but because of the ethnic population increasing in certain areas, the demand for white and red onions is increasing.”
“For us, onion varieties have remained fairly consistent,” says Teri Gibson, director of marketing and customer relations for Peri & Sons Farms, based in Yerington, NV. “Yellows are by far the biggest seller — the bulk of the crop we plant — followed by whites, reds and then our Sweetie Sweet. Outside of our overall annual market growth, which is focused on quality retail, we see demand for sweet onions continuing to grow.”
For John Shuman, president of Shuman Produce based in Reidsville, GA, consumer demand for sweet onions is strong. “The 2016 Vidalia sweet onion season has shown excellent consumer demand,” says Shuman. He attributes this to a combination of good pricing and the quality of this year’s crop. “It’s the best growing year in recent history with great volume and sizing,” says Shuman.
“Most of our Vidalia onions have been trending toward jumbo and colossal. We were fortunate to produce a very good RealSweet Vidalia onion crop from our 2,300 acres, with acreage very similar to what we had last year.”
“Vidalia onion sales are growing, and this is due in part to the growth of sweet onions these past few years,” says Susan A. Waters, executive director, Vidalia Onion Committee, based in Vidalia, GA.
Within the onion category, sweet onions now represent the largest category share at 35 percent, followed by yellow onions at 33 percent, according to the Chicago-based Nielsen Perishables Group. When in season, Vidalia onions represent 62 percent of all sweet onion sales nationwide.”
According to Grant Kitamura, onion promotion committee chairman for the Idaho-Eastern Oregon Onion Committee, based in Parma, ID, “Due to the continued interest in home gourmet cooking, onions are still a mainstay for standard favorites and new recipes that include many ethnic cuisines. Yellow onions are still on the top because of their versatility, but reds have become increasingly more popular because of their color and plate appeal.
Communicating Cooking Trends
Foodservice trends provide opportunities to promote all varieties of onions in produce, according to Jeff Rhoden, senior sales manager at Glennville, GA-based Bland Farms. “Signage, point-of-sale materials and recipe tear-off pads are a great way to communicate ideas for usage of Vidalia onions. We have recipes printed on our consumer bags in order to offer the consumer a meal solution.”
Shannon Kyle with sales at Elba, NY-based Torrey Farms sees the versatility of onions as a major selling point. “Onions are one of the most versatile vegetables available. Onions of all colors can be consumed raw, caramelized, marinated, roasted and they are found in recipes for meals at all times of the day. They are also a part of nearly every ethnic cuisine and there is unlimited opportunity for retailers to communicate these things to consumers.”
“Onions are one of the most versatile vegetables available. … They are also a part of nearly every ethnic cuisine and there is unlimited opportunity for retailers to
communicate these things to consumers.”
— Shannon Kyle, Torrey Farms
For Gibson at Peri & Sons, retailers can help consumers realize the many eating possibilities for onion varieties other than yellow. “Our bags and tags promote our free recipes, which are easily available on our website, for every variety of onion,” she says. “The average consumer probably doesn’t know that white onions are wonderful for cooking. They generally have the highest sugar content, their texture holds up well, the translucent white color is very attractive, and there’s no bitter aftertaste when cooked.”
Kyle recommends retailers promote onions by tying them into the season. “In the summer barbecuing season, merchandize red onions near peppers, pineapples and cherry or grape tomatoes to show the consumer how they can easily slide them onto a skewer as a vegetarian option or grill them with meat. Also, in warm weather, consumers tend to prepare more salads, fresh salsas, and lightly cooked or grilled dishes. These types of meals work well with sliced and diced fresh red onions.”
Kyle also believes retailers will have success cross-promoting reds in the deli department as toppings for sandwiches and ingredients in wraps.
Curry has seen the way cooking shows and food blogs influence consumer interest and suggests retailers pay attention to popular trends. “The continued growth and interest in cooking shows and blogs have been a great boon to retailers,” says Curry. “If a recipe is seen on one of the popular food shows, for example, it is common for shoppers to come in that following week looking for those ingredients.”
“When it comes to cooking, Vidalia onions are extremely versatile, adding flavor to soups, salads, salsas, dips, dressings and even desserts,” says Waters at the Vidalia Onion Committee. “Our ‘V*Inspired’ campaign highlights the versatility of Vidalia onions in a wide variety of recipes. In addition, Vidalia onions have become a favorite among chefs. Vidalia onions taste great sautéed, caramelized, baked, grilled and more.”
What many consumers may be unaware of is how taste is affected by the season. John Vlahandreas, onion program director for Idaho Falls, ID-based Wada Farms, explains, “A lot of people don’t know what they want, and they just grab an onion. What they miss is that the onion this time of year is the mildest onion you’ll ever get for grilling and cooking. These short-day onions don’t get all the light that the other ones do; they should retain a bit of their water, becoming a little bit milder, and they’re not as bitter as when you pull them out of storage in January and February.””
Onions have many natural merchandising partners, and retailers should bring them together to cross-merchandise in produce as well as other retail departments. “Onions pair well with lots of other produce items like pre-packaged salads, tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers,” says Kyle. “Colorful, multi-item displays can be focused around the specific season, holiday or event that is coming up.”
Peri’s Gibson sees grilling and sports events as opportunities for retailers to promote onions. “Americans love pairing food with almost any type of sporting event or outdoor activity. You don’t need to replace every calorie-intense snack food at your gathering — that may cause a meltdown — but consumers can start replacing half of them with healthier produce-based snacks. The produce aisle needs to become the place to start when planning those munchie menus.”
Shuman has research to back up the power onions have to drive sales of other commodities. “Research we’ve conducted with Nielsen Perishables Group indicates sweet onions drive sales of a variety of items. Consumers with sweet onions in their carts are more likely to purchase produce such as peppers, celery, tomatoes, mushrooms and bagged salad as well as fresh meats, such as beef and chicken.”
Over the summer, Shuman Produce partnered with different brands both inside and outside of the produce department. Packaged salads, refrigerated salad dressings, tomatoes, peppers, potatoes and meats are all a part of their on-pack coupon program. “We ship bags of our RealSweet Vidalia onions to participating retailers with a coupon booklet already attached to the front of each bag. Along with offers from each of the partner products, each retailer-specific coupon booklet features a recipe including all of the items. The consumer gets the added value of a meal solution along with discounted ingredients, while the retailer has a built-in cross merchandising tool that results in a larger basket at check-out.
“I always like to see onions promoted like an apple or an orange,” says Wada’s Vlahandreas. “Get it out there on the shelf and stack it nice and neat and promote it with what’s going on at the time. If you’ve got barbecues going out there, you put it close to the corn and the tomatoes. If you have some by the meat department, that never hurts.”
“Cross promotions with other departments can be successful,” says Anthony Mazzuca, director of commodity management at Salinas, CA-based Tanimura & Antle. “Onions are not typically displayed in refrigerated units at the store level, which opens up the possibility of displaying them in conjunction with promotions in other departments.”
The Power In Displays
Onion displays are effective tools for retailers who keep three key factors in mind, as Myruski at Myruski Farms advises: “Make sure they have good ventilation, are kept at room temperature and keep them dry.” To achieve these conditions for proper onion displays, retail produce executives are advised to rely on a little help from their friends at the National Onion Association.
Kyle at Torrey Farms suggests retailers turn to the organization’s website for storage, handling and merchandising tips. Kyle also notes, “With increasing interest from consumers in value-
added fresh-cut products like diced onions, it is important to make sure you are letting customers know where they can find these items in your store.”
Gibson at Peri & Sons Farms has some advice about displays as well. “Consumers buy with the eye, so clean, neat stacks of packaged product — especially bright, colorful packages — will get noticed and sell better.”
For Rhoden at Bland Farms, signage is key. “Proper signage identifying the onions as Vidalias is crucial. We recommend large displays of bulk along with a complementary display of consumer bags. We also recommend a secondary display somewhere throughout the produce section or even near the meat case.”
“An onion is an onion is an onion,” according to Curry at Curry and Company, and this can make consumers somewhat immune to displays. His suggestion is to mix things up a bit. “Try to merchandise it a little differently so your consumer looks at the stand in a new way,” he suggests. “Are onions always to the side? Try putting them front and center for a week. Place them next to your tomatoes and avocados. I’ve seen one major chain with a great and simple ‘make your own guacamole’ sign above a display like this. If you treat onions as just a staple item, you will get those steady staple sales. If you give them a little love and attention, I think you’ll see a nice boost in sales.”
“As our retail partners know, displays drive sales,” says Shuman. “That’s why we provide bags, bins and boxes that work to complement each other and feature the product with bright and colorful imagery to draw consumers’ eyes and attention.”
Shuman recommends looking beyond the produce department for merchandising partners to help create displays that suggest easy meal solutions. This method draws consumers in and increases sales. “We suggest placing Vidalia onions in the center of the produce department and allocating shelf space specific to sweet onions for maximum effect. For example, a display including Vidalia onions, avocados, tomatoes and refrigerated dressings could be used to create a flavorful salad promotion.”
“Onions are a beautiful vegetable,” says Kitamura of the Idaho-Eastern Oregon Onion Committee. “Colorful photos displaying a variety of onion colors and slices are great for impulse buying and increasing the variety types consumers choose.” Kitamura also advises displaying both bulk and bags to give consumers options.
Waters at the Vidalia Onion Committee has developed a training guide on best practices for merchandising Vidalia onions. Retailers can download a copy from the organization’s website. “Based on national consumer and sales data research, we’ve developed a step-by-step training guide on the best practices for merchandising Vidalia onions. This is a great resource for produce managers and merchandisers, providing them with key information on maximizing Vidalia onion sales.”
Changing demographics can affect produce sales, and retailers should adapt to these changes when promoting different products. “Research is showing that the U.S. melting pot concept is not as established as previously thought,” notes Gibson at Peri & Sons. “People are reconnecting with and embracing their cultures, so now almost every neighborhood is a complex multicultural mix.”
Gibson sees this as a challenge for retailers, but for those who do the work, it’s an opportunity. “Stores that pay attention to their local shoppers and are given some freedom to address their needs, even if they are outside the corporate template, will be seen and rewarded for being more authentic and connected.”
“Since onions are so versatile and used in such a wide variety of ethnic dishes, they are one of the easiest vegetables to promote to a variety of demographics,” says Kitamura. “The easiest way to achieve this is to identify the demographics the retailer is promoting to and find appropriate recipes to display along with onions.”
Shuman sees ethnic dishes as an opportunity for onion sales and for the home cook in general. “Sweet onion shoppers are likely to be fresh-and-health-oriented premium shoppers who prefer home cooked meals, purchase specialty items and are more likely to buy products that suggest an ethnic skew, like Mexican and Italian meals.”
Shuman’s year-round sweet onion program provides a consistent supply of sweet onions for retailers to take advantage of and increase their register rings all year long.
Yellow onions continue to rule the category, but reds are giving an old standby a run for its money. They’re becoming increasingly popular in restaurants
across the country, which can be used to promote them for home use as well. “Red onions are a staple in the foodservice industry,” says Matt Curry, president of Curry and Company, based in Brooks, OR. “But many consumers aren’t using them for
their sandwiches, burgers and salads
Curry recommends featuring photos of reds in store circulars and promoting them through social media as well as POS materials like recipe cards. “We have done a lot of red onion business with one of the major sub sandwich chains,” he says. “I think it’s something retailers could capitalize on in their stores.”
“As a grower/shipper, we have observed the red variety definitely gaining market share,” says Shannon Kyle, a 12th generation member of the Torrey Family. Kyle works in sales and food safety for Torrey Farms, based in Elba, NY. “The food bloggers and restaurants seem to be slicing and dicing red onions as a partner or topping to a wide assortment of menu ideas. Yellows are definitely still at the top, but red onions have gained popularity, especially in fast casual dining like on pizzas, sandwiches, wraps and salads.”
For Tanimura & Antle, based in Salinas, CA, sales are at an all-time high. The company is the only year-round supplier of Artisan Sweet Red Onions, and Anthony Mazzuca, director of commodity management, sees this as a growing trend. “In recent years, volatility in industry supply of red onions has translated into steep increases in customer requests for contracts and long-term pricing.”
Mazzuca contends that the retail demand for high quality red onions has driven the growth of their program. He attributes this demand to the versatility of the red variety, which sets them apart from yellows and whites. “An Artisan Sweet Red Onion is as delicious raw as it is cooked. They bring a burst of color into any dish chefs/consumers are preparing and can easily substitute for whites or yellow in most any recipes.”
“Retailers that wish to increase their red onion sales can make a big impact by just listing their various uses,” according to Grant Kitamura, onion promotion committee chairman for the Idaho-Eastern Oregon Onion Committee, based in Parma, ID. “Red onions are great for pizzas, fresh salsas, salads and sandwiches. Pickled red onions are gaining huge interest for today’s cuisine. Merchandising vinegar and other pickling ingredients along with red onions is a wise choice.”
“I think advances in packaging are giving shippers and retailers new ways to market onions,” says Shannon Kyle with sales at Elba, NY-based Torrey Farms. “Convenient pack sizes made from environmentally-friendly packaging and the ‘less is more’ approach are appealing to many consumers.”
Kyle also thinks loose onions in bulk displays are appealing to consumers who prefer to hand select their produce. She also believes graphic floor display bins are great ways to drive traffic to the onion category by allowing for multiple merchandising positions.
“Each retailer has its own preference for bulk and loose and the percent mix they go with,” says Matt Curry, president of Curry and Company, based in Brooks, OR. “During the start of the month, bags often do well as people store up on their onions for the month.” Curry sees sweet onions as an opportunity for seasonal marketing and recognizes the impact of food shows and magazines in driving consumers to particular products. Produce executives should capitalize on this free asset. “When one of the foodie magazines features an onion recipe on the cover, consider putting that issue on display next to onions. I bet it drives some sales.”
Susan A. Waters, executive director for Vidalia, GA-based Vidalia Onion Committee, has some numbers on how consumers are purchasing packaged onions. “Our research indicates 48 percent of consumers surveyed have purchased Vidalia onions in five-pound bags or less. The high-graphic D-pack bag has really added to the growth of Vidalia sales and provides a great platform to educate consumers with nutritional information and recipes.”
While there are many layers to onion merchandising, they are a relatively easy sell if promoted correctly. Retail produce managers who use the available tools and tips effectively will increase sales of all varieties year-round.