BY ANY NAME — California Mandarins Grow In Popularity

Originally printed in the February 2020 issue of Produce Business.

At 41% of the citrus category, these tiny delights are oh, so sweet.

Mandarin oranges are a highly popular citrus fruit all across the United States among a variety of demographic groups. With a bit of retailer focus, they can be an even more powerful item in produce departments.

Mandarins, of course, are small, loose-skinned varieties of the common orange, typically sweeter and less acidic than the larger oranges. Thought to have originated in India, they traveled across China where they picked up their name. They made their way to England and down to Italy, eventually making it to the Moroccan port of Tangier, where they garnered another name, tangerine. Because they are easily crossed with other varieties of citrus and can grow in a number of climates, several varieties of mandarins have been developed.

Mandarins constitute about 41% of the citrus category, according to consumption data for calendar year 2019 from Chicago-based market research firm IRI.

Mandarin production data is limited and not released most of the time, according to industry sources. The most recent California crop production report data cited by Exeter, CA-based California Citrus Mutual shows 2018 California mandarin valued at $1.2 billion, about 36% of the $3.35 billion U.S. citrus crop, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 2018-2019, there were 72,000 mandarin and tangerine acres in the United States, up from 71,300 the previous season, according to the USDA.

California mandarins (excluding tangelos) grew by about 35% in the past season due to a heavier than average crop and additional acreage, according to Los Angeles-based Wonderful Co., which cited the latest USDA citrus report, published in August 2019. The mandarin and tangerine category will continue to grow as a result of new sub-varieties being introduced to extend the season, says Zak Laffite, Wonderful Citrus’ president. “Mature production is expected to have a 15% lighter crop between clementines and mandarins, but some of that reduction will be offset by new producing acreage,” he says. “Our internal estimates show supply should be short by 10% to 13% against the past season as a result of lower yields.”

The No. 1 usage occasion for mandarins is their inclusion as a staple in kids’ lunch boxes. They have become a convenient and healthy on-the-go snack for adult consumers, as well. American consumers also incorporate mandarins as a colorful ingredient in salads, salsas, and healthier dessert options like mandarin parfaits.

‘Category Leader’

Jason Sadoian, sales representative for Fowler, CA-based grower, packer and shipper Bee Sweet Citrus, says he has seen both consumption and retail sales of mandarins rise in recent years. “They have grown into a category leader.” The most popular sizes vary, he adds, depending on the retailer and price.

“Mandarins check off all the qualities that consumers look for in citrus,” notes Bee Sweet Citrus sales representative Joe Berberian. “Their unique flavor combined with their versatile characteristics make them a great fit for anyone looking to incorporate healthy snacks into their diet.”

Retailers intent on having mandarins reach their full potential in their produce departments should look at their program as a series of integral and interconnected parts. They include:

Engaging With Customers: Christina Ward, director of corporate communications for Sunkist Growers in Los Angeles, says a crucial part of moving more product out of the produce department is consumer education. Her company helps with that through in-store, point-of-sale material “that reflects the high quality, California-grown brand message, and provides retailers the ability to build awareness amongst consumers.”

Engaging with consumers at the retail level is key, says Ward, “and creating sampling stations where consumers can interact with the product and learn about the health benefits and nutritional attributes to help encourage purchase intent.” Sunkist markets the Satsuma Mandarin, Clementine and W. Murcott Mandarin, Royal Mandarin and Gold Nugget Mandarin varieties.

“Parents and educators often look for healthy snack alternatives to celebrate, and Clementines are perfect for curbing a child’s sweet tooth.”

— Monique Bienvenue, Bee Sweet Citrus

Promotions: Giving consumers an additional incentive to buy is always a good idea, especially when dealing with fresh fruit.

Last year, Sunkist collaborated with retailers to execute Gold Nugget variety mandarin promotions consisting of sampling and coupons. Consumers learned about the unique flavor, taste, and versatility of this mandarin variety available in spring.

Ward says her colleagues at Sunkist worked with many of the company’s retail partners in the past season to build strong, season-long promotional plans, which resulted in strong sales.

Cross promotions with other, complementary Wonderful Co. brands, such as Wonderful Pistachios and POM Wonderful, both inside and outside of the produce aisle also help create “thoughtful healthy snack displays to help consumers find healthy food options more easily,” says Dave Rooke, senior vice president of sales at Wonderful Citrus.

Seasonality: California’s domestic citrus season ramps up with the availability of Clementine mandarins, which kicks off during the first week of November. Grown and harvested in California’s Central Valley, this variety is popular for its sweet flavor and vibrant color.

As the holiday season approaches each year, there is “no better time to stock up on sweet mandarins,” says Monique Bienvenue, Bee Sweet’s citrus director of communications. “Parents and educators often look for healthy snack alternatives to celebrate, and Clementines are perfect for curbing a child’s sweet tooth.”

Mandarins are currently available year-round, with counter-seasonal supply coming from the Southern Hemisphere, says Rooke, helping to maintain consumer interest throughout the year. “The counter-seasonal supply of mandarins and the strength in consumer consumption of mandarins has empowered retailers to become more creative and savvy about how they sell mandarins in recent years. You see this with larger mandarin in-store point-of-sale displays, in various strategic locations of the store, and themed to various holidays and occasions throughout the year.”

According to Wonderful’s executive team, mandarin consumption is strongest during the California mandarin season, which runs November through May. They also see spikes during family holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. “While the market for mandarins continues to remain strong, consumer consumption has leveled off in recent years,” notes Rooke. “Despite this, Wonderful Halos’ mandarins remain our top selling citrus brand.”

Usage: Ward says Sunkist executives see a lot of mandarin usage in salads, marinades, cocktails/mocktails and desserts. “While this variety is a great feature in recipes, they also stand on their own as a healthy snack.”

Merchandising: There are many ways Wonderful works with retailers to market Wonderful Halos’ mandarins through its successful Grove of Goodness point-of-sale program. The company provides retailers with free, branded and eye-catching in-store POS displays, like the popular Halos grove tree and fruit stand. The goal is to drive consumer attention within the produce aisle and in secondary locations such as check-out, pharmacy, frozen food aisle and the lobby entrance, which Rooke notes are “huge for us in driving velocity growth.”

Rooke says it is important for retailers to plan ahead as it relates to key consumption periods. Retailers benefit most when Halos are on large displays in produce, he says. “The bigger the display, the faster mandarins sell. With more than 95% sell-through, retailers should not be shy in building big displays.”

Demographics: With various ethnic groups being targeted carefully by marketers, and Millennials and Baby Boomers so large and important a part of the marketplace, Wonderful’s management says mandarins cross all demographic boundaries. “We’ve stated this through the years,” says Rooke, “but regardless of age and ethnicity, today’s consumers are not only more health-conscious but they are becoming more savvy about the foods they eat in order to live a healthier lifestyle.” Specialty citrus “perfectly fits into this category with Millennials, Baby Boomers, and others who care about where their food comes from and prefer mandarins as a healthy, on-the-go snack.”

Children and healthy-minded parents remain an important audience for targeting mandarin consumers who love them as a healthy snack that provides easy, on-the-go convenience, says Rooke.

Packaging: Product packaging is an often-underestimated factor, says Rooke. “We at Wonderful think packaging makes a big difference on the retail front. The Wonderful Company believes in the power of branded produce, so we leverage eye-catching branded packaging and point-of-sale (POS) displays to help consumers find Wonderful Halos.”

Because mandarins are consumed on various occasions by various consumer groups, says Rooke, it turns out a multi-sized packaging approach works best. “We sell Wonderful Halos’ mandarins in two-, three-, and five-pound bags and five-pound boxes at retail. A family-sized value pack is perfect for families, while smaller sizes are key to reaching new consumers and getting trial and repeat purchases.”

The three-pound bag is the most popular size in grocery, and the five-pound bag is favored in mass and club channels, says Rooke.

According to Ward, “By keeping on top of consumer behavior and trends, Sunkist is able to provide retailers innovative solutions and opportunities to drive consumer demand and consumption throughout the entire mandarin season.” The result has been undeniable. “Mandarins are growing in popularity, with larger volumes. Every region has a mandarin program, and we have found smaller packaging is more favorable on the East Coast, while larger packaging does well on the West Coast.”

Interestingly, Bee Sweet’s Sadoian does not agree that packaging makes much of a difference on the shopping floor. “Consumers pretty much know what a mandarin is. We think the fruit sells itself.” More specifically, bags tend to sell better, especially the two-, three- and five-pound packages.