From stone fruit to grapes to pomegranates, many high-volume items can reap big dividends for retailers’ bottom lines.
As summer wanes, temperatures and leaves will drop, but California fruit sales don’t have to. Thanks to varietal introductions, for decades consumers have been accustomed to the state’s late-season grapes and stone fruit well into the fall. Names such as Autumn Royal say it all.
If managed correctly, these high-volume items can help anchor consumers to the produce aisle for many months ahead, merchandised in sync with a plethora of California fruits such as citrus, pomegranates, kiwifruit, apples and even strawberries, where higher yielding late varieties are gathering steam.
For Ian LeMay, president of the California Fresh Fruit Association (CFFA) in Fresno, CA, the provenance of his state’s fruit is synonymous with the highest quality.
“Holistically for California produce, we continue to brand ourselves as some of the safest and healthiest products on the market,” he says. “We believe our growing quality continues to be consistent and high.”
Growers in the Pacific Northwest and New York would make similar claims about their apples and pears, which also hit the market at this time, but California’s edge comes from its diversity.
“Yes, the varieties are fewer [compared to summer] but there are still plenty of opportunities promoting grapes, stone fruit and pomegranates with other seasonal fall items such as Clementines, persimmons, kiwifruit and quince,” notes Jeff Simonian, president of Simonian Fruit Company in Fowler, CA.
Simonian says table grapes are the commodity that has experienced the greatest change with a proliferation of varieties on the market and a season that extends through to January. Pomegranates will be around until January or February, while stone fruit will last into November.
“Most harvests have begun a little later this year than the previous season — anywhere from five days to two weeks later, depending on the crop and location where they are grown,” he says. “Pomegranates look to be a real light crop this year, but stone fruit and grapes look like they will have normal size crops, with plenty of availability.”
Even though many of these fruits are available 12 months a year or with only short market gaps, Simonian says with stone fruit, for example, the connotation with summer still exists. This means many fall fruits need a bit of extra support to build momentum, be it through in-store sampling, price promotion, special merchandising or social media campaigns.
“Some consumers will buy year-round, but I think summer is still king, and therefore you would need an extra push to increase sales in the fall,” he says. “I think promotions are the key, if the retailers can start early and continue often, that will help move the volume.
“The holiday season is in the fall, so I think that is a great opportunity,” adds Simonian. “I’ve seen grapes in special packaging for Halloween and Christmas, so why can’t we do that for these other fall items?”
EXTENSIONS OF SUMMER
Gerawan Farming of Fresno, CA, pioneered the late peach deal 30 years ago with its late-maturing Prima-branded Gattie varieties of yellow-fleshed peaches.
George Papangellin, Gerawan’s sales manager, says demand is so great today that planting for the variety continues, while the company also has propagated a series that matures from early September all the way through late October.
“It is our flagship peach,” says Papangellin. “Most of our customers tell us the Prima Gattie ends the stone fruit season as their most profitable peach, so they use Prima Gattie as the focal point in their fall sets.”
Gerawan offers Prima Gattie-specific point of sale (POS) material to retailers, but for Papangellin it is the fruit’s size and color in particular that “is a tremendous asset to a thoughtful display.”
He claims for many retailers a program with this fruit has led to year-over-year sales growth in the double digits. Other late-season entrants in the peach space include Last Tango and Autumn Flame.
Papangellin calls for marketers to use Labor Day, Halloween and holiday season preparations, as well as back-to-school and back-to-business fall realities to support sales goals.
Like peaches, table grapes are often thought of as a summer fruit. But John Pandol, director of special projects at Pandol Brothers in Bakersfield, CA, says volume in reality is “half summer, half fall and has been for some time.”
“Grapes are always in the store, so I’m not sure many consumers appreciate the seasonal nature of grapes,” says Pandol.
“Most of the new variety introduction has been mid-season to late varieties, fall grapes,” he says. “The two that really changed the fall deal were the Scarlet Royal and the Autumn King, both introduced in the mid-2000s and both at 15 million plus boxes within 10 years.”
Freshness has been a key driver of the category’s success, with a steady flow of grapes with staggered maturity between varieties leading to a constant supply in the fall months.
“Freshness impacts texture and mouthfeel. People talk about juicy grapes, but they really want a meaty grape with a well finished interior that is crunchy or chewy,” says Pandol. “One of the positives of oversupply is a disincentive to over-store grapes ‘for when the market is better.’ ”
With so many grape varieties now available, Pandol believes the best department margins seem to come for those who advertise a discount on only one SKU (stock keeping unit) in the category while leaving others at the normal price.
“We’ve also observed ‘two and two’ for retailers who carry three colors of seedless plus a red globe, with ad pricing on red seedless and red globe one week and white and black seedless the other,” he says. “Bigger assortments have always been popular, the ‘grape-o-ramas’ of old, with all varieties available.”
Pandol adds that retailers can also try using clamshells to separate a specialty variety, while secondary displays and ‘grower packaging’ are also useful. And most importantly, retailers need to be adaptable.
“Retailers need to be flexible. The biggest problem I see at retail is poor quality or old-looking grapes because the retailer committed to a program of a variety, organic, a specific shipper or origin, and he can’t back out,” notes Pandol.
“We saw a large regional chain commit to the regional exclusive on a red seedless variety — the variety was not very good that year, and the rest of market average was 52 percent above them that quarter.”
FALL BERRIES NOT TO BE FORGOTTEN
Another crop that extends into the fall from summer is strawberries. The category may be a comparatively smaller player at this time of year, but growers are taking steps to make the commodity more relevant during the period.
Chris Christian, vice president of the California Strawberry Commission, says the desire of retailers to promote fall fruits should not lead them to abandon strawberries as a top revenue driver in the produce department.
“Fall production in California presents an opportunity to maximize category revenue for the year,” says Christian. “We anticipate weekly volumes of about five million cartons per week from August through the end of October.
“Retailers should maintain summer berry category space allocation into the fall, using California strawberries as the anchor as seasonal volumes of the other berry varieties begin to decline.”
She explains a portion of Southern California acreage is replanted during the summer months to produce a new crop in the fall.
“This new production is the reason volumes remain fairly steady from August into October,” she says. “Newer varieties are both higher yielding and produce high-quality fruit during the fall.”
POMEGRANATES AND CITRUS
There is perhaps no name in the world of produce more synonymous with pomegranates than POM Wonderful, headquartered in Los Angeles and a company that further strengthened its market leadership in 2017 with the acquisition of another key player, Ruby Fresh.
Charlotte Mostaed, POM Wonderful’s director of marketing, says the company grows between 150,000-180,000 metric tons (MT) of pomegranates depending on the season and weather.
“As our trees continue to mature, yields and tonnage will continue to increase over time as well,” says Mostaed. “Peak season for POM Wonderful variety pomegranates starts in October and goes through January, with our biggest peaks taking place during the holiday season.”
She says when pomegranates hit the shelves in October, there is a “strong resurgence of consumer love” for the product that is especially tied to the holidays.
Mostaed recommends retailers use POM Wonderful’s display bins to create a point of interruption that has been identified as the top trigger for people to trial pomegranates, often leading to repeat purchases throughout the season.
She notes there have been robust tailwinds for the arils category over the past five years as consumers seek healthier snacking options.
“Since 2014, Arils category sales have grown an average of 13 percent per year,” she says.
Another iconic California fruit whose season starts in the fall is citrus, which is a prime example of an industry that has pushed the bar higher in pursuit of quality.
Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual in Exeter, CA, mentions the sector has self-imposed standards for maturity to create value for consumers and growers.
“Poor flavor is not in the vernacular of the California citrus industry,” he says. “This change was made to offset challenges from a burgeoning and now mature Mandarin industry that could have cannibalized shelf space from the Navel orange.”
“The combination of a new, smaller and easier-to-peel piece of citrus and a traditional orange with greater flavor stimulated a record number of years in terms of volume moved and revenue received.”
Although there still will be summer oranges available in the fall and the lemon harvest will have commenced in Imperial County, CA, and in Arizona in September, the new citrus season traditionally begins in October.
“The goal is to have excellent quality available and promotions beginning for the Thanksgiving holiday,” says Nelsen. “Christmas brings major advertising and millions of cartons into the market across the country.”
The citrus industry will, however, need to get over the effects of offshore product “lingering in the market longer than any time in history” in 2018-19, which left a bad taste with consumers and marketers alike.
“This fall you’ll see a more aggressive start by brands to differentiate the California citrus from that being sold by others,” he says. “Somehow, the California industry with higher costs and stronger wage rates needs to stimulate demand better.”
“We will differentiate the source of the citrus. We will promote the consistency of higher quality fruit. We will inundate the consumer with promotions and marketing programs,” says Nelsen.