Holidays like Labor Day, Halloween and Thanksgiving provide themes to sell fall produce.
Originally printed in the August 2023 issue of Produce Business.
Fall weather doesn’t arrive at the same time across the nation. The brisk temperatures by Labor Day in northern states means shoppers look forward to pumpkin displays, while those in southern states see this as a holiday to celebrate late-season sweet corn and watermelon at outdoor barbecues.
However, regardless of what the thermometer says, when it comes to fall holiday merchandising, “It’s the calendar that always wins,” says Ken Holthouse, vice president of operations at Holthouse Farms, a Willard, OH-based wholesaler of winter squash, gourds and pumpkins.
Fall occasions such as back-to-school, the short seasonal availability of produce items like Hatch chiles, and traditional holidays like Labor Day, Halloween and Thanksgiving, are all potent themes to sell more produce. Here’s how:
Apples and schools have long been associated, so naturally, back-to-school time in August and September is an important one, says Diane Smith, executive director of the Lansing, MI-headquartered Michigan Apple Committee (MAC), which forecasts a crop approximately 85 to 90% the size of last season.
“The timelines gel. Preparation for the beginning harvest and starting school happen around the same time.”
Starting this season, the MAC will focus on education and communications aimed at driving customer demand. The organization gets the most website traffic in fall, with consumers looking for recipes, usage tips and nutrition information, says Smith.
Brianna Shales, marketing director for Wenatchee, WA-headquartered Stemilt Growers LLC, sees Rave as the “back-to-school apple” because of its early harvest before other varieties like Honeycrisp.
Stemilt recently partnered with Back2School America to donate school supplies to students in need when someone chooses to buy Rave apples this year, she adds.
“Lil Snappers, pouch bags of small-sized apples and pears in multiple varieties, are other items that sell well during this timeframe for lunch boxes and after-school snacking,” Shales says.
Pears are a favorite among children, with green and red Bartlett and Starkrimson starting harvest in August and winter pears following shortly after, says Jim Morris, marketing communications manager for the Pear Bureau Northwest, in Milwaukie, OR.
“Fall is the pear-fect time to reset the department with attractive pear displays that utilize all of the available sizes and colors to grab consumers’ attention.”
“Pears have one of the highest rates of impulse purchases in the produce department when properly displayed and merchandised,” Morris adds. The Pear Bureau encourages retailers to display pears toward the front of the produce department, with high visibility to drive impulse purchases. Secondary and end cap displays will help increase sales of pears, as will secondary displays during key ad promotions.
The Dole Food Company’s “Back to School with Bobby Banana” promotion kicked off in July and runs through Sept. 15. The initiative, accompanied by in-store signage for retailers, features a set of seven collectible banana stickers and pineapple tags featuring the company’s iconic Bobby Banana and Pinellopy Pineapple.
Included in the sticker set is a QR code that leads to kid-friendly recipes, digital downloads and printable activities all themed toward back-to-school.
HATCH CHILE SEASON
In August and September, the two months of the year when fresh Hatch chiles from Hatch, NM, are available, many of the 36 Homeland grocery stores, headquartered in Oklahoma City, OK, host Hatch chile roastings. The roastings typically take place in the front of the store.
“At first, we were surprised this promotion resonated with so many customers. Now, it’s an annual event and it pulls people into the store,” says Mark Collard, produce manager at one Oklahoma City location.
“It’s an all-day event,” says Collard. “Customers can buy fresh by the case and roast them at home or buy the roasted chiles by the pound and take them home to freeze. There are taste samplings and recipes. In-store, we build displays of fresh Hatch chiles upfront. There’s both mild and hot and we sell them in totes or bulk.”
This year, the store started to do pre-orders, he adds, and by early August, more than 50 customers had reserved cases of Hatch chiles.
Over 50 retail chains nationwide have participated in Hatch chile roastings with Vernon, CA-based supplier, Melissa’s/World Variety Produce. The company offers 1.25-pound totes and high-graphic boxes to enhance displays, plus merchandising materials.
“Our Hatch Essentials is a good way to prolong the seasonal excitement for Hatch chiles,” says Robert Schueller, Melissa’s director of public relations.
Hatch Essentials is the company’s value-added line to Hatch chile products, including seasonings, seasoned pecans and popcorn. New in 2023 is Hatch-flavored Avocado Salsa and Taqueria Salsa.
More than half of Americans celebrate Labor Day, which falls on Sept. 4 this year, by grilling and gathering, according to the 2022 Consumer Survey Report, Labor Day Weekend, by Numerator, a consumer insights company headquartered in Chicago, IL.
For grilling, this same report shows vegetables (36%) are the fourth top choice to put on the grill, behind burgers, hot dogs and sausages, and steaks.
For gatherings, numerous fall events kick off with Labor Day, says Gary Caloroso, regional business development director for The Giumarra Companies, in Los Angeles, CA, and grapes make for a versatile addition to these gatherings.
“By effectively promoting grapes during this time, retailers can tap into increased consumer demand, making the most of these festive moments and driving overall sales and customer satisfaction,” says Caloroso.
Late August and early September is the first push of the season for winter squash, gourds and pumpkins at Holthouse Farms in Ohio.
“A major Midwest retailer likes to start getting these in two weeks before Labor Day, so they can be the place for teachers to get decorations for their classrooms. Overall, the biggest week is Sept. 5-9, when retailers do their fall reset displays,” says Holthouse.
The start of brisker weather in early September and a return to work and school routines often means consumers resume cooking at home.
“We see steady demand for potatoes and onions year-round. However, fall is when comfort meals featuring roasts and potatoes become popular again,” says Cassie Krebs, administrative and marketing assistant, and food safety coordinator for Gumz Farms, in Endeavor, WI.
NATIONAL APPLE MONTH
October is National Apple Month and is a great time to promote because of the wide variety available, according to Stemilt’s Shales. “We make sure retailers have the right mix of apples and adequate display space for incoming apples. Our merchandising team will run display contests to spike sales and create movement in the category,” she says.
Apples front and center with displays that create a farm market aesthetic has been a popular method for merchandising apples, says the MAC’s Smith. “Many retailers also implement tote bag programs in the fall, which tend to move a lot of fresh apples. In Michigan and surrounding states, locally grown has been a very successful theme for retailers.”
Giumarra’s Caloroso says as part of the company’s commitment to retailers carrying its assortment of fall fresh produce items, which include domestic Lemonade apples, “we provide promotional support, point-of-sale merchandising materials and social media graphic assets.”
Lemonade apples, created in New Zealand and now grown in Washington where they are sold exclusively by Giumarra, are a juicy sweet-tart yellow-skin apple.
Twenty years ago, even 10, the idea of building big displays of tropical and specialty fruits prior to Halloween, Oct. 31, would have caused the fright of high shrink. Now, retailers like the Uptown Grocery Company in Edmond, OK, one of two locations under this banner owned by Antlers, OK-based Pruett’s Foods, starts bringing in Kiwano melons, rambutan, blood oranges, dragon fruit, starfruit, jackfruit, cactus pears, and Buddha’s Hand citrus in early October for its Freaky Fruits promotion. The retailer expands its volume and variety of these items as Halloween nears.
“We build the displays at the front of the store and add traditional fall items like pomegranates and pumpkins at the edges,” says Ray Stiffler, produce manager, Uptown Grocery Company.
“All the odd-looking fruits, with the display dressed up with Halloween decorations, really draw in the kids. It’s like a toy section in the middle of the produce department,” Stiffler adds. “Parents like it because it’s fruit, not candy.”
“We were reluctant at first, because these aren’t the usual fall fruits, but it’s now an annual promotion for us that we’ve found is successful.”
Freaky Fruits is a promotion that’s been offered for the last eight years by Melissa’s/World Variety Produce. The company offers a retail sign kit, that includes an Iron Man poster, banners, product signs, bin signs and how-to cards.
Two other must-carry Halloween staples are caramel apples and pumpkins.
“Many retailers will start stocking up on caramel apples the weekend before Labor Day. Halloween is the biggest selling holiday, and the best seller then is the small caramel apple in a single pack or three pack,” says Chad Hackenbracht, vice president of production for Tastee Apple, in Newcomerstown, OH.
New is the company’s Kraven Chocolate Apples. These are made using 88-count extra fancy Granny Smith apples, covered in caramel, and rolled in toppings like a white chocolate pretzels, chocolate pecans and chocolate miniatures.
Similarly, after the pumpkin push for fall resets, consumer demand skyrockets in the weeks leading up to Halloween. Second only to “handing out candy,” nearly half of consumers say “decorating my home” figures in their celebration plans, according to the 2022 Consumer Survey Report, Halloween Preview, by Numerator.
“Halloween is the second largest consumer holiday, and pumpkins are a great low-ticket, feel-good item that grabs the attention of children and adults,” says Lindsey Lance, sales and marketing director at Bay Baby Produce, Inc., in Mount Vernon, WA. “Halloween supports the ornamental pumpkins. We suggest cross-merchandising in a way, such as intermixing colors and textures next to each other, that provides inspiration to the consumer and maximizes that cross-sale.”
New this fall, the company is launching its Home Décor Consumer Box filled with seven items and four different varieties of ornamental pumpkins. A Mixed Organic Squash Consumer Box is also new. The box features lesser-known varieties and a QR code that leads to recipes and how-to’s.
Gathering and cooking will be the top celebration methods for Thanksgiving, according to Thanksgiving 2022, Holiday Intentions Preview, by Numerator. Nearly half (46%) of shoppers surveyed planned to buy fruits and vegetables.
As for vegetables, “Thanksgiving is by far the most popular holiday for sweet potatoes,” says Jason VanDusen, marketing director for A.V. Thomas Produce, in Livingston, CA. “Retailers should promote heavily and carry multiple varieties of sweet potatoes, since each variety has a different culinary application. We will be offering our proprietary sweet potato varieties, Stokes Purple and Ben Yagi Purple, as well as our other specialty varieties, Okinawa and Murasaki, to expand consumer options.”
Days leading up to a big holiday are important, too, adds Kathleen Triou, president and chief executive of Fresh Solutions Network, LLC, in San Francisco, CA. “It’s a time that necessitates convenience items, like our Side Delights Steamables, to get dinner on the table quickly and prep for holiday activities.”
As for fruits, the peak availability of California-grown persimmons is around Thanksgiving, according to Lila Baig, business development and marketing director for Catania Worldwide, in Mississauga, ON, Canada. “Persimmons are used in Thanksgiving dishes like persimmon pie, persimmon pudding, or included in fruit baskets and centerpieces.”
Baig adds, “The most powerful and effective approach to promote any novel item lies in the art of demonstrations. We also provide retailers with seasonal marketing materials, such as posters, recipe cards and brochures, to educate both staff and customers about persimmons and their uses.”
Fresh cranberries, only available from September through early December, are iconic as an ingredient for Thanksgiving cranberry sauce.
“Cranberries aren’t candy bars — people are not going to buy 100 bags if the price is good. But they will buy the rest of their Thanksgiving meal if they are buying cranberries,” recommends Kevin Tritz, sales and operation, Twin Lake Cranberry Co. LLC, Vesper, WI. “So, price your cranberries to get people in the store, and put that deal front and center.” Tritz expects a 20% bump in crop over last year.
Merchandising teams at Ocean Spray Cranberries focus on several tactics to help retail partners sell more fresh cranberries, according to Kelvin Vuong, senior director of brand marketing, USA foods and snacking for the Lakeville-Middleboro, MA-based company.
“One of these is collaborating with other product categories or brands that complement cranberries, such as turkey, stuffing, baking supplies and spices. Another is providing recipes featuring creative and easy-to-make recipes using fresh cranberries,” says Vuong.
Yet another is leveraging social media platforms and online channels to promote the fresh fruit, share recipe ideas, and engage with consumers during the fall season, Vuong adds.