Encourage shoppers to stock up on fruit that heals during the dreary months.
Originally printed in the October 2022 issue of Produce Business.
As summer turns to fall, California growers harvest the fresh citrus that will occupy grocery store shelves until the late spring.
Citrus also benefits from a reputation as an infection fighter, which increased the category’s popularity during the pandemic.
“We saw an increase in sales of bagged citrus during the pandemic. Our assumption is that more consumers were staying at home for meals,” says David Wilson, sales manager, Cecilia Packing Corporation, Orange Cove, CA, a fully integrated grower, packer, and shipper of California citrus.
“We are fortunate that citrus, for the most part, is a low shrink category that provides great value for consumers,” says Wilson. “I think retailers see the benefit of offering a wide array of fresh citrus to their customers.”
The attraction of citrus as a healthy alternative continues beyond the pandemic and it fits with a strategy of stocking up for the home kitchen because it outlasts other fruits, both in the produce department and in consumers’ homes.
“Eating healthy is still a priority for citrus shoppers,” says Christina Ward, senior director of global marketing at Sunkist Growers, Ontario, CA. “With in-store being the No. 1 source of awareness for citrus shoppers, we are excited to unveil a fresh merchandising program for 2023, including key holiday promotions in November and December, unique Lunar New Year displays for the January 22 observance, and new quarter and square bins. Through our in-store and digital promotions, we’re focused on reaching shoppers in authentic and meaningful ways.”
Sunkist has marketed fresh market citrus for its grower-owners since early in the 19th century.
“We are the longest-standing citrus cooperative in the nation, offering nearly 40 varieties of fresh citrus with their unique flavor attributes and favored utilization techniques,” says Ward. “There is truly something for everyone when it comes to citrus. While Sunkist offers a citrus variety for every season, winter and spring are officially peak citrus season.”
Citrus from the Southern Hemisphere is available through the summer, but this counter-seasonal fruit has not caught up with the California harvest in consumers’ eyes.
“The imports have come a long way, but California has a branding advantage,” says Justin Rowe, category manager for fruit at Tops Friendly Markets. Williamsville, NY. “A lot of the appeal goes to branding.”
Tops Friendly Markets dates to early last century when Italian immigrant Ferrante Castellani opened a neighborhood grocery store in Niagara Falls. Future generations developed a chain of 145 markets in upstate New York, Vermont and northern Pennsylvania.
Two years ago, Tops merged with Price Chopper and Market 32 to form a Schenectady, NY-based company with stores in New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire.
GOOD YEAR IN TOUGH TIMES
Although water is in short supply in most of California’s Central Valley, which supplies a majority of the nation’s fresh market citrus, reports are this year’s harvest should be good for most varieties.
“Supply will be better than last year, but not as good as the year before,” says Rowe. “Water is more prominent as a factor in the cost.”
Water shortages are compounded by economic difficulties as California heads toward its citrus harvest, but the 2022 crop will be good, if uneven, depending on the variety.
“Some challenges we are facing include inflation, as well as labor shortages, which directly impact fuel, freight and warehousing costs and access,” says Zak Laffite, president of Wonderful Citrus, Delano, CA.“Additionally, international shipping and worldwide supply chain issues stemming from the pandemic are still prevalent — these challenges increase cost and result in delays in shipments, but we’re hopeful they will improve as we enter the California citrus season.”
Wonderful is the largest citrus grower in the western U.S.
The high cost of water, fuel, and freight do not seem to be affecting citrus sales.
“Right now, we are selling Valencia oranges for record prices, and there is good demand,” says Cecilia Packing’s Wilson. “At this time, we see no change in the conditions impacting supply and demand for citrus.”
But while some varieties will have excellent supply this year, others may come up short.
“The navel orange crop was off 30% in volume this season versus last season,” says Wilson. “We are in the process of estimating the coming navel crop. We will begin packing fruit toward the end of October. In January, we are packing navel oranges, Cara Cara oranges, blood oranges and Minneola Tangelo.”
The march of California citrus varieties starts in late summer and will continue into the spring.
“This year, California citrus saw a shorter crop across most varieties,” says Ward. “With Sunkist citrus season just around the corner, we expect juicier volumes and promotable flavors. Sunkist lemons, Valencia oranges, and Marsh Ruby grapefruit are available right now through October, followed by our signature navel oranges and popular California mandarins in November.”
LITTLE EASY PEELERS STILL HUGE
The easy-peeling fruit that easily fits a child’s hand, mandarins, should be abundantly available from November until late spring.
“Compared to last season, we expect Wonderful Halos to have a much stronger crop, with volume up significantly to match normal levels — the season is expected to run from November through May,” says Laffite. “Halos category demand remains elevated compared to pre-COVID demand, as consumers are increasingly looking to purchase foods with functional benefits.”
Additionally, says Laffite, Wonderful Seedless Lemons will be available from October through June 2023, and Wonderful Citrus offers a full portfolio of both year-round and seasonal citrus, including navels, lemons, Cara Caras, Minneolas, blood oranges, and Texas oranges, grapefruit and limes.
While there have been minor ups and downs for specialty citrus varieties, none of the changes rival the recent seismic shift from navel oranges to easy-peeler mandarin and tangerine varieties.
California growers sold 96 million cartons of navel oranges in the 2010-2011 season, according to California Department of Food & Agriculture statistics. Those shipments slipped to 71.8 million cartons in 2017-2018 as consumer citrus preferences shifted, but rebounded to 88.6 million cartons in 2019-2020.
Mandarin, tangerine, and tangelos shipments totaled 21.2 million cartons in the 2010-2011 season, but more than doubled to set a record of 53 million cartons eight seasons later.
“The three-pound mandarin bag is a driver of the category,” says Rowe, of Tops Friendly Markets. “In the heart of the season, we’ll have 10 to 12 SKUS. The 5-pound mandarin and 4-pound navel are popular, too.”
Wonderful has invested heavily in consumer recognition of its premier easy-peeler variety. “Our Wonderful Halos’ large, in-store displays generate excitement with consumers in the produce department and have been shown to drive 18% faster velocities compared to products merchandised without a display,” says Laffite.
Retailers notice the impact of this extensive branding campaign.
“Halos has an advantage in branding,” Rowe says. “They were the first, although others are catching up; that gap is closing.”
Even with the top spot among easy-peeling clementines, the company continues its aggressive brand-making campaign.
“Wonderful Halos will return to stores this November, coinciding with a multi-million-dollar marketing campaign, including geo-targeted social media, in-store POS displays, and an exciting collection of colorful stickers that will surprise and delight consumers,” says Laffite. “Last season’s regionally targeted social media campaign drove higher sales growth in ad markets versus non-ad markets during the campaign period. Wonderful Halos will also be launching an updated POS lineup, including a new Halos spectacular display and holiday-themed accessories that will be available for the upcoming California season.”
Another trend connected to the growing number of consumers eating at home is a significant recent increase in sales of lemons, a popular ingredient for home cooking. One reason for this impressive, short-term 25% growth in sales of a fruit as mature as lemons is that a leading citrus grower-shipper introduced a proprietary seedless variety.
“Over the past five years, lemon growth is second to mandarin growth,” says Laffite. “We have been able to move the category forward, while creating opportunities for growth by pushing innovation. Our Wonderful Seedless Lemons, exclusive to The Wonderful Company, launched nationwide in October 2019 and we are increasing distribution each year as newly planted trees begin producing fruit in our California groves.”
The attraction of citrus as a healthy alternative continues beyond the pandemic.
California lemon shipments increased from 41 million cartons to 51.4 million between the 2016-2017 and 2019-2020 seasons, according to California Department of Food & Agriculture statistics.
Wonderful Seedless Lemons are ramping up for its fourth year, says Laffite. “Volumes of this new, naturally seedless, non-GMO Project verified lemon variety are still limited. While we’re focused on select markets and channels for now, this innovative product will be a game-changer in produce, as production grows over the next few years.”
Wonderful maintains an impressive number of boots on the produce department floor to help merchandise its products. “Our in-store merchandising team of over 200 North American merchandisers, the largest in produce, work to ensure continued growth and success with our retailers,” says Laffite.
Citrus can be merchandised as a good-for-you snack, a trending category that grew even stronger during the pandemic.
“Over the last two years, we have seen strong interest in citrus subcategories for their functional benefits and convenience,” says Laffite. “As pre-pandemic routines re-emerge, consumers are seeking good-for-you snacks they can enjoy on the go and incorporate into their healthier lifestyles, especially ones offered by citrus.”
While nothing compares to the shift toward school lunch-sized fruit with no seeds, some specialty varieties are gaining traction.
“We see good demand for our Sky Valley Heirloom oranges because I feel they have a distinct flavor profile,” says Wilson from Cecilia Packing. “We pack our Sky Valley Heirloom oranges in January.”
“One citrus item that seems to have lost some of its shelf space are blood oranges,” Wilson says. “Five years ago, we couldn’t keep up with demand. We saw sales suffer through the last few years, due in part to the pandemic. Blood oranges have a unique flavor, and they are great for home juicing.”
THE TIMES ARE CHANGING
Retailers should count on shippers to help them stay on top of changing consumer preferences within the citrus category.
“Shopper behaviors are in constant motion, and we prioritize better understanding citrus consumers, their needs, and where they want to buy,” says Sunkist Growers’ Ward. “Our category management team provides category data and shopper insights that guide the relevant and customizable marketing programs to support our partners. Overall, reaching our target audiences through an omnichannel approach is still key to our programming this year and next.”
Although they sell at far lower levels than mandarins or navels, the specialty varieties may hold the greatest opportunity for in-store efforts to increase the citrus category.
“Specialty varieties, including Sunkist Cara Cara oranges, blood oranges and Minneola tangelos, offer a lot of opportunities for retailers to grow their citrus programs,” says Ward. “We always encourage our partners to take advantage of Sunkist’s data-driven category management insights and marketing solutions. Nutrition and real-time recipe inspiration are a bonus, especially as we see shoppers still cooking at home and focused on their overall health.”
The key to category growth may be in store merchandising of these specialty varieties.
“Retailers can always take advantage of stocking seasonal citrus sub-varieties, such as Cara Caras and Texas Ruby Red Grapefruit to excite and engage consumers searching for new citrus experiences,” says Laffite. “We also found that leveraging eye-catching branded packaging and high-graphic in-store point-of-sale (POS) displays including bin bases, posters, and balloons helps retailers to drive more impulse citrus purchases.”