Growing health and demographic trends for the fruit promise greater opportunity.
Though historically considered a winter holiday or baking item, dates have increased in popularity and demand in recent years. Raley’s in West Sacramento, CA, with 121 stores, reports a major lift for year-round use. “Other retailers report up to a 60 percent lift in sales for the current year,” says Myisha Nathaniel, Raley’s produce category merchant.
According to importer Devik International Inc., in White Plains, NY, dates represent a breakout item within produce. “In recent years, U.S. date consumption has sustained double-digit growth,” says David Daks, president and chief executive. “Retailers and consumers alike value the long shelf-life of dates, making them a low-risk fruit to hold in inventory for retailers and a healthy snack for households to buy. Yet, there are still many retailers who don’t sell dates or only have a minor offering. This makes dates a great opportunity to capture a competitive advantage in the market.”
At SunDate LLC, a Medjool grower in Coachella, CA, the company has experienced double-digit growth year-over-year for the past 20 years in date production. “We don’t see an end to the demand,” says D.J. Ryan, sales and operations manager. “It’s a highly profitable item, with very little shrink.”
Dates continue to expand in popularity because they appeal to many ethnic groups, according to Vic Savanello, senior director of produce and floral with Allegiance Retail Services, a 100-store co-operative in the New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania markets. “Dates have always been popular in our Italian and Greek demographic stores, but as of late, they’ve gained incredible popularity in stores within the growing Middle Eastern population,” he says.
Emily Kohlhas, sales and marketing coordinator at John Vena Inc., in Philadelphia, considers dates to be an essential offering in the produce department. “They enliven product mix when fresh fruit is in a lull,” she says. “They often appeal to customers who have traveled, especially to California or the Mediterranean, where they are in abundance. Dates can go beyond the shopping list to tug at the softer side of purchasing behavior and drive sales.”
Retailers can encourage sales by putting together an effective, yet simple year-round action plan based on a few areas. “Having an action plan for the date category is especially important because many holidays that feature dates as a celebration staple shift based on the lunar calendar,” says Daks. “These include the Jewish holidays of Passover and Rosh Hashanah, and the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Knowing which varieties to promote and when can make all the difference in allowing a store to capture the highest sales.”
Here are some suggestions how retailers can capture the date market at the register.
Offer Variety. Kohlhas advises retailers to keep in mind a date is not just a date. “Meaty, moist Medjool dates are very different from firm, lightly sweet Deglet Noor, which often comes pitted,” she says. “Medjools are the date of choice for snacking, stuffing or wrapping in bacon; Deglet Noor is best for baking or cooking. Be sure to offer a selection appealing to each consumer.”
Devik International witnesses a solid multiplier effect in sales when dates are treated as a category versus a single item. “Positioning multiple varieties next to each other on a shelf presents consumers with a choice that maximizes sales across the category,” says Daks.
“Positioning multiple varieties next to each other on a shelf presents consumers with a choice that maximizes sales across the category.”
— David Daks, Devik International Inc.
The company carries bulk and consumer packages of Medjool, Deglet Noor and Halawi dates year-round, as well as fresh dates like the Barhi from September to October. “We also see an increased demand for our Delilah Organic Medjool,” says Daks. “Merchandising our new date syrup, Silan, in the produce department next to the dates has increased consumer awareness for this healthy item.”
Savanello has found easy-to-shop packaging and bigger displays of larger packs really drive sales. “We’ve even taken in a 5-pound retail box for certain stores,” he says. “It’s hard to believe a pack this size would be in demand, but with our growing diverse consumer base, it is.”
Make Them Visible. Raley’s Nathaniel says store placement and merchandising are key to increasing sales. “Medjools should be kept at eye level, or close to it,” she says.
SunDate’s Ryan agrees. “It comes down to the amount of shelf space,” he says. “Retailers typically see a direct correlation between the two.”
Stores are cautioned not to merchandise dates underneath displays. “Don’t put dates at the bottom of the barrel — literally,” Kohlhas says. “Putting them on bottom shelves under other products where they are forgotten by both consumers and employees does not do your department justice. No one wants a dusty date container.”
Kohlhas instead suggests stores incorporate retail pack dates into a visible display. “And, consider adding a self-serve bulk option to a refrigerated case or section of bulk bins,” she says.
Plan for Traditional and Non-Traditional Holidays. Traditionally, Thanksgiving and Christmas are associated with dates; retailers should highlight product during this season.
“Dates definitely become much more in demand around Thanksgiving and Christmas,” says Allegiance’s Savanello. “I recommend my stores merchandise them with other holiday items consumers seek out, including chestnuts and other tree nuts, for both consumption and baking.”
Kohlhas believes dates, unlike other dried fruits, are luxurious and absolutely essential for these decadent holidays. “A sharp-looking retail pack of Medjool makes a great gift for hosts,” she says. “Dates are a successful display item during holidays.”
As the U.S. population continues to diversify, so have selling opportunities. “There is tremendous demand and push around Ramadan,” says Ryan. “Stores traditionally stock up before Ramadan starts, but there is buying throughout the holiday.”
Date sales at John Vena also spike for Ramadan. “Medjool dates are the traditional way to break the fast once the sun sets, and are an important part of the culture and community,” says Kohlhas. “It’s scientific, too; dates are an excellent source of nutrition and lasting energy — nature’s perfect food to support daily fasting. We see even small retailers in Muslim areas moving pallets of dates through Ramadan.”
However, selling for Ramadan may take a bit of extra retail planning since the holiday is not stationary. “Ramadan moves up one month each year,” says Raley’s Nathaniel.
Regardless of which holiday it is, Daks urges retailers to make the most of the opportunity. “Holiday promotions are a great way to convert customers into year-round consumers,” he says.
Play Up Health. The trend toward natural food diets, points out Kohlhas, has significantly impacted demand. “Dates are one of the primary sweeteners in sugar-free diets, and they’re an important source of carbs for those on grain-free diets,” she says. “We’ll continue to see retail demand grow as food artisans, processors and meal kits incorporate them into recipes.”
Nathaniel notes sports-minded consumers are spending time in the produce department as they seek out products to meet their dietary requirements. “We need to shift the mindset of our sports-minded customers to dates because two Medjool dates provide as much energy as an energy drink,” she says. “And, Medjools have 50 percent more potassium than bananas.”
“We need to shift the mindset of our sports-minded customers to dates because two Medjool dates provide as much energy as an energy drink. And Medjools have 50 percent more potassium than bananas.”
— Myisha Nathaniel, Raley’s
Educated store personnel play a critical role in conveying the health message on dates, according to Nathaniel. “Team members serve as a consumer’s trusted advisor in our stores,” she says.
Connect with Consumers. Stores are advised to connect with consumers both in the department and at home. SunDate packages feature QR codes leading consumers to more information on recipes, health and how dates are grown and harvested. “We must educate the consumer on what they’re buying,” says Ryan. “Dates have an interesting story to tell, and today’s consumer is interested in the story behind their food.”
Sampling is also highly recommended to stimulate impulse purchases. “Dates are an excellent candidate for sampling programs, especially in conjunction with the specialty cheese department,” says Kohlhas. “Stuff Medjool dates with a blue or goat cheese on promotion, slice and serve — it’s irresistible.”
Stores can also cross-promote with other popular and/or gourmet items. “There are many opportunities to pair dates, including with other fresh fruit, meats and wine,” says Ryan. “Around the holidays, retailers should incorporate Medjools into their nut displays.”