Originally printed in the May 2020 issue of Produce Business.
Boost sales by promoting natural sweetness and health benefits.
Versatile, sweet and referred to frequently as a super food, dates can be an increasingly important part of any retail produce department. This can happen as long as management gives dates the marketing and merchandising attention they deserve. Dates offer many health benefits as snacks and ingredients. Retailers promoting these qualities will be able to boost date sales by engaging shoppers seeking sweetness and versatility.
The good-for-you aspect is the most compelling marketing angle. The average California date has only 23 calories. They are a naturally fat-free and sodium-free food, which make them a healthy snack alternative. They are also filled with vitamins and minerals and have a high fiber and enzyme content that provides for complete assimilation of the vitamins and minerals.
“Most retailers understand the expanding popularity of Medjool dates,” says Natalie Machado, national director of marketing for Santa Ana, CA-based food broker FreshSource LLC. “However, I’m not sure if they all understand the many healthy properties they possess. They are high in calcium and can lower cholesterol. They are a natural energy booster — delicious, pure energy. They are high in fiber and they can also boost metabolism.”
Machado lists a variety of health benefits attributed to consuming dates, including immune system stimulation, decreasing cholesterol, preventing and relieving constipation, acting as a natural energy booster, reducing triglyceride levels, acting as an alternative natural sweetener, boosting bone health and providing a rich source of beneficial phytochemicals.”
Tony Somohano, director of wholesale sales for Woodspur Farms in Coachella, CA, explains conventional retailers are not as up on the health benefits of eating dates as organic retailers. “Most retailers that cater to the healthy food sector know what dates are, though they might not know all the benefits of Medjool or Deglet Noor dates,” he says.
According to Woodspur’s website, dates have 50 percent more potassium by weight than bananas, add sweetness without adding sugars, and also improve the taste, texture and consistency of food and beverages.
Machado is convinced that Medjool dates are merchandised best in the produce department. “They are sold in bulk and in assorted sizes of packages,” she says. “Keep displays fresh and full. Promote periodically.” When retailers really look at dates, she adds, “they realize the popularity and the dollar-generating potential they provide.”
The most challenging part of selling dates from the produce department, according to Machado, “is also the easiest part—keeping the displays, bulk or packaged, fresh and full.”
Somohano recommends retailers use enticing language, such as “undiscovered super fruit, naturally nutritious and healthy and naturally antioxidant” to promote this fruit. He adds, “Most dates are under 30 percent moisture. When we export our Medjool dates, most countries considered (them) a dry fruit.”
As far as Greg Kirkjian, vice president of sales for Desert Valley Date in Coachella, a packer and shipper of California dates, is concerned, encouraging consumer trial is the toughest part of the marketing process. Despite dates being referred to as nature’s candy due to their sweetness, he says getting people to try the product is challenging. Once retailers manage to initiate that first consumer contact, however, “and give it time, they see dates move really well.” Kirkjian says the best part is this fruit’s longevity. “Because dates have a long shelf life, there is very little shrink compared to other produce items,” he explains.
Dates are like avocados were 25 years ago. They are the best undiscovered super fruit on the planet.”– Tony Somohano
Desert Valley distributes a number of date varieties, although the majority are Medjool and Deglet Noor. The company also offers an array of date-based products, such as trail mix and date paste as well as both consumer and industrial packaging to accommodate diverse customer needs, and Desert Valley ships worldwide.
Dates do well when they are promoted, Machado says. “Unfortunately, you do not see them promoted often,” she notes. Cross merchandising with other items such as nuts, honey, cream cheese, mascarpone cheese, goat cheese, hors d’oeuvres and bacon for stuffing and wrapping can prove to be very effective.
Medjool dates are consumed as part of the Mediterranean diet, Machado points out, and “therefore, are very popular in the diets of those people originating in that part of the world.” However, Medjool dates are expanding into other demographic groups, as well “because of their delicious taste and health benefits.”
Dates are popular items during the holidays, and there are many ways to encourage sales during that time. However, this fruit has a longer season than just Thanksgiving and Christmas. With imported dates available, they can be marketed successfully year-round.
It’s important to note that dates are consumed year-round when readily merchandised, Machado emphasizes. “There is always a bump in consumption when they are in season between September and November. And, of course, they are very popular during the holidays.”
“In most years, the month of April sees a large spike in date sales,” says Ben Antongiovanni, president of Pure Palm Produce in Bakersfield, CA. “[This is because] there is traditionally a bump in sales for Easter and Passover. Our Pure Palm Medjool dates and pitted dates are certified kosher for Passover, and sales do very well the week before Easter as families come together to celebrate.”
Retailers with large Jewish demographics have had great success cross-merchandising dates with other Passover-certified items, he adds, giving customers a destination in the store to fill their needs.
Also in April, Ramadan is generally around the same time as Easter. “This holiday moves up on the calendar every year and is a peak selling period for the date industry,” Antongiovanni maintains. The month-long period of Ramadan leads to high date consumption, as Muslims break their daily fast at sundown.
Executives at Pure Palm encourage retailers to build date displays in the middle of the bananas or berries section in order to maximize sales. This fruit is an incremental sale and needs to be at eye level, says Machado of FreshSource. “Fresh Medjool dates especially are a premium high-margin item with large year-over-year growth.”
With a little attention at retail, she continues, moving the product up from floor level and out of the dried fruit section leads to tremendous gains. “We have also seen increased sales, as health-conscious moms are trying to cut back on refined sugar [for their children],” Machado says.
More consumers are reaching for dates as a substitute sweetener in their daily lives, as well. Athletes are also starting to eat more and more dates as a pre-workout boost and post-workout recovery. “They offer the same benefits as most bars, but are a true power-packed, plant-based superfood,” says Machado.
She and her colleagues have also seen large sales increases of late, as retailers build up date supplies during the coronavirus pandemic. “This is because dates are a nutrient-dense fruit with an exceptionally long shelf life. They were always a staple item years ago, as Middle Easterners crossed the desert on camels.”
According to Machado, proper packaging allows for excellent ‘on pack’ marketing as well as the ability to provide the product at different price points. “Natural Delights does a great job using different color packaging to help market their many different date options, including pitted; whole; organic; premium; coconut; almond; pecan pumpkin spiced; and cacao with pecans.”
The future of dates sold from the produce department is bright. “Dates are like avocados were 25 years ago,” Somohano concludes. “They are the best undiscovered super fruit on the planet.”