Originally printed in the July 2018 issue of Produce Business.
The tide of new varieties arriving from California provides an opportunity for retailers to distinguish themselves from the local competitors.
California is the clear leader when it comes to U.S. table grapes. It’s the No. 1 supplier of domestic red, green and black grapes, accounting for 99 percent of all of the fruit that’s grown commercially. According to the California Table Grape Commission, growers sent 109.1 million boxes valued at $1.81 billion to market in 2017. Sixty-four percent of that volume remained in the United States.
Looking forward to this year, the crop size is expected to be slightly larger, with up to 113 million boxes being made available in the marketplace. “For our district, the outlook looks really nice,” says Jon Zaninovich, president of Jasmine Vineyards, a family-owned table grape producer that has its headquarters in Delano, CA. “It’s a good-looking crop. There’s a large amount of fruit hanging. Markets right now seem to be strong because there’s been a shortfall out of Mexico on volume and quality. Coachella had a late start too.” As the season picks up, there should be no problem acquiring good-quality product.
Grapes are so consistently cited as one of America’s favorite fruits in surveys that they are now considered a staple for most consumers, says Kathleen Nave, president of the California Table Grape Commission, a marketing, promotion and research organization based in Fresno. “California grapes are a draw for the produce department because of their popularity with consumers,” says Nave. “Grapes pull shoppers into the store and retailers know that.”
The big story within the industry remains the transition in varieties, with new types of grapes becoming available and older varieties being phased out in some cases. “The number of varieties grown in California has been fairly stable for the past five years, totaling about 85,” says Nave. “Breeding new varieties of table grapes is something that the industry has been involved in since the 1970s, so it isn’t a new effort. For example, the commission has worked with the USDA to breed new table grapes since the early 1980s. Fifty-six percent of the grapes being grown today are from that USDA breeding program. We start by identifying a need in the marketplace and then work to breed a grape to fill that need. Private breeders do the same.”
As new varieties become available, many of the standard varieties such as Thompson Seedless and Crimson Seedless are being phased out to make way for new ones. Growers look for varieties that are more cost-effective to grow, especially in the face of rising labor and water costs. They also look for varieties with characteristics that consumers find most appealing. Retailers like grapes that hold well on the shelf and have a number of attributes that appeal to consumers.
According to Nave, in the past decade as new grapes varieties have become available in the fall, the length of the domestic growing season has been strengthened. “California grapes have long been available from May to the end of January, but what has changed is the volume available in the fall. Sixty percent of the California grape volume comes after Sept. 1. That’s a direct result of the strategic work done in public and private varietal breeding programs over the past decade.” One of the messages the Commission is sharing is that while grapes are a spring and summer fruit, they’re primarily a fall fruit.
Tim Dayka, managing member of Dayka Hackett LLC, a grower, importer and marketer of grapes based in Reedley, CA, sees great value in offering these new and exciting grapes to shoppers. “The grape category may be one of the best opportunities retailers have to distinguish themselves in the marketplace,” he says. “If your store is the only place consumers can pick up the varieties they love, they’re more likely to choose your store over others.”
Although most growers don’t offer stores exclusive access to branded grape varieties, they often will look for strategic partners in various regions. “We try to hand-pick the retailers who are most focused on differentiating on service and quality as opposed to retailers who compete based on price,” says Jim Beagle, chief executive of Grapery, a table grape grower with headquarters in Shafter, CA. “When you have grapes that look like other people’s grapes but they cost more, you’ve got to have an effective relationship with a retailer who’s going to merchandise them and help consumers understand, ‘Why is this $2.50 a pound, and why should I buy it?’ A lot of effort goes into merchandising strategies to figure out the right way to do that.”
Stores willing to put the time in marketing and educating consumers about these new grapes can offer exciting and delicious options. “At the end, it’s all about offering selection and variety to the consumer,” says Dayka. “Retailers that have elected to take the approach of identifying new varieties and offering a broader selection have significantly increased the dollar sales for the entire category. Retailers that limit their selection to one red, one green and one black seedless may not experience that same type of sales lift as retailers that offer a broader selection.”
NEW TYPES OF GRAPES ABOUND
What are some of the new grapes being offered to consumers? Sun Pacific, a Pasadena, CA-based, family-owned-and-operated business that bills itself as one of the largest produce growers in California, has three new products that have joined its grape lineup. Look for green Autumn Crisp grapes, red Scarlottas and black Adoras this year. Both will be available conventionally and organically.
Dayka Hackett is marketing black grapes with the label Haunt’umn Royal in the fall. “It creates excitement during the Halloween season, not only for black seedless grapes but for red and green as well,” says Dayka.
Zaninovich with Jasmine Vineyards is excited to be offering Summer Crunch, an early-summer white seedless, and a green seedless grape called Sweet Clove.
Jim Pandol & Company, a grower, shipper and distributor of fresh produce based in Selma, CA, offers a green grape called Sweet BabyDolls. “They have small berries and are really grown for flavor intensiveness and sweetness, not berry size,” says owner Jim Pandol.
Grapery has gotten a lot of attention for its Cotton Candy grapes, a green fruit with a spun sugar taste. Other new varieties include Gum Drops, which produce clusters with relatively small purple globes, and Moon Drops, which produce very long, dark-colored fruit.
“Category management research makes clear a multiple variety display draws customers to it and moves volume.”
— Kathleen Nave, California Table Grape Commission
Many of these grapes are only available for a limited period. For example, the 2018 season for Cotton Candy is expected to run from mid-August to mid-September. The season for Moon Drops is mid-August to mid-November. That means stores will have to rotate through several varieties to keep grapes in stock.
Brian Halling, produce director for Hermantown, MN-based Super One Foods, which is owned by Miner’s Inc. and has stores in Minnesota, Wisconsin and upper Michigan, has been carrying Cotton Candy and some of the other new grapes recently. Customers have responded positively to them and seem to like having a wider variety to choose from.
Justin Schumann, produce and floral director for North State Grocery, which has its headquarters in Cottonwood, CA, and operates stores throughout northern California under the names Holiday Market and SAV MOR, also has seen big success carrying the new grape varieties in his stores. “What’s helped grapes a lot is they went for those nice packages and the high-graphic bags, so that catches your eye,” he says.
GRAPE PACKAGING AND PRICING
Clamshells and pouch bags continue to be the most popular ways to package grapes, but retailers may see a new type of packaging soon. “Sun Pacific will be testing a new ‘Top Seal’ package that provides consumers with the benefits of added food safety,” says Howard Nager, the company’s vice president of business development. “In addition to packing in bags and clamshells, we are also packing in fixed-weight packages that allow retailers the opportunity to scan the UPC and not have to rely on front-end personnel to punch in PLU numbers.”
“I see a trend toward more fixed-weight and sealed bags with a printed weight on them,” says Zaninovich. Knowing the bag’s weight allows shoppers to quickly calculate how much the grapes will cost, which decreases the likelihood of sticker shock at the register.
“Retailers should run weekly promotions on grapes throughout the season,” says Nager. “Based upon research from the California Table Grape Commission, discounting grapes at 31 percent or more when on promotion maximizes impact.”
Although lower prices can be good, Pandol cautions retailers not to drop them too much. “When they get too low, customers are thinking when they see the ad, ‘That’s awfully cheap. Something must be wrong with those grapes,’” he says.
Whether traditional or trendy new grape varieties grace your store’s shelves, there are several things you can do to increase sales during the many months when California grapes are abundantly available. Among them is to carry and promote multiple varieties, preferably in at least two locations in the produce department. “Category management research makes clear a multiple variety display draws customers to it and moves volume,” says Nave.
Retailers agree it’s important to offer consumers red, black and green grapes at the same time and in the same location. “You definitely have to have at least red and green, and black is getting up there,” says Schumann.
Putting some time into consumer education can help increase sales, especially when it comes to black grapes. “Many of the black grapes have tremendous flavor but still have not quite caught the eye of consumers, as many feel that black grapes still have seeds,” says Nager.
The California Table Grape Commission has a number of promotional programs and marketing resources retailers can use to educate consumers about the great taste and health benefits of grapes. It also has toolkits for dietitians and recipes for consumers interested in cooking with them.
Sampling grapes is important, especially for stores carrying new varieties that consumers aren’t familiar with. “The key is getting them out in front of people and having them try them,” says Schumann. “Every morning we get a bag, wash it and put it on a produce cart. Then when someone is looking at grapes we can say, ‘Have you tried these?’ and offer them one.”
It’s helpful to have multiple grape displays within the department. One should be in a prominent location near the front. “Grapes are a staple of some sort, but it’s also a big impulse buy sometimes,” says Zaninovich. If consumers find them in several locations, they’re much more likely to pick them up.
Halling with Super One Foods has had good luck cross-merchandising grapes with wine and different deli items. (The California Table Grape Commission recommends setting cheese and crackers near them.) He also emphasizes advertising as a way to boost sales. “You pretty much have to advertise on the front and back page,” he says.
His biggest tip for grape merchandising, though, is to keep displays clean, well-stocked and well-signed. “Maintain them throughout the day so they’re ready for consumers,” he says.
Zaninovich shares the same idea. “Grapes are one of those items that people have no compunction about opening a bag and testing them,” he says. “A picked-over display is not attractive, especially on table grapes. If they’re good and priced right and in a good location in the store, it’s about maintenance of the display.”
A half-empty table or shipper, the California Table Grape Commission points out, will leave consumers thinking they’re getting the bags no one wanted, not the premium quality grapes. Make sure the displays that hold grapes are kept well stocked throughout the day, but don’t stack bags more than two high. This protects the grapes from getting squashed.
Putting different-colored grapes together will bring out the rich hues in each. It also will remind people of the variety that’s available to them in this broad and delicious category.
WHAT DO CONSUMERS LOOK FOR?
There are several things consumers look for when selecting grapes. “They want premium quality, consistent sizing and large sizing,” says Brian Halling, produce director for Super One Foods, Hermantown, MN.
“Just like all produce, you buy with your eyes first,” says Justin Schumann, produce and floral director for North State Grocery, Cottonwood, CA. “The size of the grape makes a big difference.” The texture of each piece of fruit is also something consumers pay attention to. “Harvest Hobgoblin and Pretty Lady grapes [from Sunlight International Sales, McFarland, CA] snap when you bite them like an apple.”
Taste always has been important, but as people get more interested in cooking and coaxing flavor from homemade dishes, growers sense it’s getting more important. “U.S. consumers are getting focused more on flavor than in past years,” says Jim Pandol of Jim Pandol & Company, Selma, CA.
Schumann has placed priority on keeping his grape selection as consistent as possible. “I didn’t want one thing one week and something else the next week,” he says. “I wanted to pick a label and stick with it as long as we could for both our box stores and our conventional format. We want our customers to know what to expect when they come in. If you don’t consistently have the same grapes, they may leave disappointed.”
Shoppers buy grapes because they love the taste and crunch. They’re also purchasing them because they’re convenient for on-the-go consumers. “Grapes are the perfect snack: healthy, refreshing, and great-tasting,” says Kathleen Nave with the California Table Grape Commission. “They are easy to share and easy to take in lunches, to parties, to the beach or in the car.” Snacking remains a key part of the American diet, so promotions around the portability of grapes are sure to attract attention.
The fruit’s many health benefits are also helping with sales. “There is a lot of research coming out of universities that shows there is something powerful about the combination of phytonutrients in grapes,” says Nave. “There is a lot of promise in the practice of eating a handful of grapes every day to offset the risk of some pretty serious diseases and overall to live a healthier life.”
Grapes are a natural source of polyphenols, which have antioxidant properties. Studies have shown they promote a healthy heart, brain, colon and eyes. It’s worth noting that grapes are actually a type of berry, which may make them even more appealing to today’s berry-obsessed customers.