The ancient fruit is seeing new interest among young shoppers.
Originally printed in the August 2021 issue of Produce Business.
Packed with a unique flavor, dried figs find uses in many forms. From snacking to appetizers and salads and sides, dried figs provide a burst of nutrition in every bite and offer a convenient snack. Through effective merchandising, figs also help retailers lift sales of related items.
Though humans have enjoyed eating figs for millennia and as a key ingredient of many cultures’ cuisines, one challenge, however, is that many consumers don’t know a lot about figs and the benefits dried figs provide. While figs in general have been experiencing high demand, shoppers seeking shelf-stable nutritious foods during the year of COVID helped blossom interest in dried figs.
“California dried figs are critical to sustaining California fig sales throughout the year,” says Karla Stockli, chief executive officer of the California Fig Advisory Board, Fresno, CA. “The primary challenge is lack of familiarity with figs and limited opportunity to sample. Many consumers have yet to try a California dried fig.”
Unlike their fresh counterpart, which is restricted to a limited shelf life and season, dried figs are available throughout the year. Fresh figs are typically harvested beginning in May and available through August and sometimes into September. The challenge of fresh is that fresh figs possess short shelf lives. Fresh figs are limited to seven days from picking to eating.
At Drust Markets in Wallingford, CT, a part of ShopRite/ Wakefern Food Corp., dried figs are displayed in secondary displays on tables during the holidays. The stores sell dried figs throughout the year, but experience higher sales through larger displays during the holidays. “Specific customers look for them,” says Don Drust, owner. “During the holiday season, a lot of people are looking for them. We sell them year-round and tie them in with other dried fruit. They’re not on everybody’s shopping list. During the holidays, there’s a significant uptick for them.”
Fig growers and marketers are experiencing strong demand. “We definitely see an upswing,” observes Linda Cain, vice president of marketing and retail sales for Valley Fig Growers, Fresno, CA. “We are seeing a spike in popularity for fresh and dried figs. There’s lots more interest than we had 10 to 20 years ago.”
When shoppers learn more about dried figs, they are often surprised and delighted by their unique flavor and excited to learn about their versatility and nutritional benefits, says Stockli. “Figs have a unique flavor profile and subtle sweetness that doesn’t overpower other ingredients,” she says.
“Dried figs are going not only to those 50-plus, but many younger people during the pandemic discovered cooking can be fun,” says Cain. “Dried figs fit well into their exploration of things new and unique. Dried figs are a fantastic product from a taste and health standpoint. They hit so many notes. Once they get discovered, they have a loyal following.”
California produces an average of 10 million pounds of fresh figs and 16 million pounds of dried figs annually. “The California fig industry continues to see growth in the category,” says Stockli. “More trees are being planted year-over-year to keep up with demand.”
Production growth follows demand. “Figs in general have grown in popularity, but last year (2020), we saw a spike in particular in dried figs as people were looking for shelf-stable, nutritious foods,” notes Stockli.
Dried Fruit Staple
Dried figs often are merchandised alongside raisins, prunes, apricots, cranberries and an array of other dried fruit. Within the dried fruit category, dried figs have increased its presence from 2%-3% a decade ago to 4.5%-5% today, notes Cain.
“Dried figs are a great item for retailers to promote, especially during the holidays, next to nuts and next to citrus,” says Cain. “Dried figs have two-year shelf lives and virtually no shrink. Rotation is important, but not critical. Make sure they get rotated no less than on a monthly basis.”
William H. Kopke, Jr., Inc., based in Great Neck, NY, sells Jenny’s-branded dried figs from Greece from September into early January, with shipments sometimes running a little later.
“Figs, of course, have an increased awareness these days,” says John Maybeck, director of category management. “They are a great wholesale item and have a very loyal following. People are eating more healthy snacks. I think people are more conscious of what they eat these days. They fit in well with other dried fruits.”
Dried figs offer great snacking possibilities. “They’re something you can take with you anywhere,” quips Maybeck. “They go great in fruit baskets.” Maybeck says he wishes retailers would be more interested in carrying imported dried figs longer after the first of the year. Dried figs’ long shelf life would offer more merchandising opportunities, but crop limitations of the imported items restrict volume. “People continue to ask for them after the holiday season, which is a bit of a challenge on our end,” he says.
Dried figs are an ideal item for cross merchandising. Valley Fig Growers has promoted dried figs through partnering with many other foods, including cheese, crackers, pears, chocolates, pastas, salad mixes, nuts as well as rice and pork. “There aren’t a lot of things they don’t fit well into,” says Cain. “There’s not a single thing we don’t fare well with. We are like Switzerland. We go with everything.”
Endless Cross-Promotion Possibilities
Cross-merchandising with cheese can boost sales of both items. Pairings and cross promotions often include items for the perfect cheese tray: figs and cheese with honey, nuts, rosemary, apricots or lavender, for example.
One idea to is place dried figs alongside their fresh counterparts. “Fresh figs are considered a premium, but they are a seasonal fruit,” observes Stockli. “Placing dried figs near fresh when in season helps consumers connect the dots. Keeping dried fruit in the produce aisle in general is a good general reminder to add these important fruits to the diet. It is a reminder that dried figs provide the same flavor and nutrition year-round and are a great way to excite consumers about dried figs.”
Cain recommends dual displays, including cross-merchandising with cheeses and charcuterie in the deli department. Merchandising in ready-to-display cases helps encourage product placement in shopping carts. “The ready-to-display cases offer great exposure of the product,” says Cain. “That lends itself as an easy way for consumers to pick up product, so they don’t have to find them on the tables.”
The display-ready cases serve as a reminder to shoppers. “As we are not always on shoppers’ grocery lists, people will see and recognize that they haven’t had them,” says Cain. Displaying in the nut bins alongside the other nuts helps move dried figs. “As people are really looking for nuts in the bins in and out of holidays, putting our product in bins is a great way to gain additional exposure and nice rings from the produce department,” she says. “Throwing some of our bags or containers in those nut bins will also help generate sales because figs and nuts are a combination consumers think of during the holidays.”
Figs can be marketed to a variety of shoppers and demographics. “There are so many types of fans and potential fans of figs,” says Stockli. “All ages enjoy the sweet treat, but ethnic groups, especially Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and Asian, really get excited about figs. Figs have been around for centuries and are an important part of many cultures and traditions. Another sweet spot for marketing is the health and wellness consumer — those who are looking for natural products that fit their healthy and active lifestyle.”