Originally printed in the August 2020 issue of Produce Business.
This vegetable’s versatility and robust keeping qualities made it one of the top sellers in the produce department when shoppers stocked up in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Onions have been a staple in mankind’s diet since prehistory. In March, this vegetable’s versatility and robust keeping qualities made it one of the top sellers in the produce department when shoppers stocked up in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Specifically, onion sales in pounds and dollars increased double digits, 23% and 20.6%, respectively, between Feb. 15 to March 28, 2020, compared to the six weeks prior, according to FreshFacts on Retail Q1 2020, published by the Washington, D.C.-headquartered United Fresh Produce Association (UFPA). This ranked onions second only to potatoes in virus-driven sales spikes.
“Onions sales went up this spring, and they’ve stayed up for us as restaurants are slow to re-open and more people are cooking at home. I think we’ll see this trend for a while,” says Marc Goldman, produce director at Morton Williams Supermarkets, a 16-store chain based in Bronx, NY.
Even pre-pandemic, the onion category was no slouch in sales. In fact, onions ranked fourth in the Top 10 Vegetable categories in 2019, according to the UFPA’s FreshFacts on Retail, Year in Review, following packaged salads, potatoes and tomatoes. More recently, onions represented 3.6% of total produce and 7.3% of total vegetable dollar sales during the 52-weeks ending July 4, 2020, based on data provided by Nielsen, a New York-based data analytics company.
What’s the best way to keep sales of this high gross profit veggie on a role? Read on.
1. SPICE UP SALES WITH VARIETY
Yellow onions are a cooking staple, which constituted 28.6% of category dollars during the 52-weeks ending July 4, 2020, based on Nielsen data, with sales up 10.5% over the year prior.
“The USDA’s Farmers to Families Food Box Program took a lot of medium-sized onions that normally would have gone to the retail market,” says Herb Haun, marketing order promotion committee chairman for the Idaho-Eastern Oregon Onion Committee, in Parma, ID. “There will be greater availability of sizes when the new crop harvests next month, but even so, part of our marketing strategy this year is to encourage retailers to promote more jumbo and colossal onions. For example, recommending shoppers buy these sizes to make baked onion blooms and onion bowls. This also raises the retail profit margin since the larger onions weigh more.”
Sweet onions made up 25.7% of category sales, according to 52-week Nielsen data ending July 4, with dollars up 8.8% over the previous year.
New, Greencastle, PA-headquartered Keystone Fruit Marketing introduced its new Walla Walla Rose Sweet Onion in July primarily in Northwest markets. The light red-colored onion is sweeter and more mild tasting than a traditional red onion, says Michael Blume, vice president of sales and marketing for the Greencastle, PA-based company, a division of Progressive Produce. The company sells this variety in 40-pound cartons and 3-pound bags, in colossal, jumbo and medium sizes. Supplies will last through mid to late August this year, with greater volumes anticipated in the future, according to Blume.
“Sweet varieties such as Vidalia, Texas 1015 and imports are the best movers in the onion category for us,” says Terry Esteve, produce director at Robért Fresh Market, a six-store chain based in New Orleans. “Vidalia onion season is a pretty big deal, and customers start asking for them as soon as we get into the middle of March. When the Vidalia crop winds down, we move to the imported sweets. Any of the sweet onions have surpassed the yellow onion movement over the past five years or so to the point where we only carry yellow onions in the 3-pound bag.”
Paying attention to the seasons could be helpful to sell more sweet onions year-round.
“In the U.S., sweet onions, for example, are grown all over the country; Texas 1015s start off the season in March; Vidalias out of Georgia begin harvest in April; Walla Walla Sweets out of Washington come to stores in mid-June, followed by Imperials from California and Sweetie Sweets out of Nevada all summer. Even Alaskans have their own sweet onion variety (Yensis onions) that harvest in August and September,” says Rene Hardwick, director of public and industry relations for the Greeley, CO-headquartered National Onion Association (NOA).
A weather-related shorter crop of Vidalia’s this year led Potandon Produce to move up its Peruvian sweet onion imports to July rather than August.
“Peru, which grows a nice flat-type sweet onion, can start harvest in early July and produce for about nine months or into March. We wanted to be ready with supply if another wave of COVID-19 hits this fall and shoppers stock up,” says Mark Breimeister, sweet onion specialist for the Idaho Falls, ID-headquartered company, which markets its sweet onions under the Green Giant Fresh brand.
Shuman Farms will again import organic sweet onions from Peru.
“Our organic Peruvian sweet onions will be available in November and are the perfect incremental item in produce departments, especially ahead of Thanksgiving and Christmas,” says John Shuman, president and CEO of the Reidsville, GA-headquartered company, which will debut its new state-of-the-art packing house in Peru this season.
Red and white onions comprised 12.8% and 11.8% of category sales, respectively, according to 52-week Nielsen data ending July 4. Dollars were up 12.5% on red onion and 4.7% on white, versus the prior year.
“Red onions add color to salads and sandwiches. White onions are favored in Italian and Latin dishes,” says Jessica Peri, retail sales manager for Peri & Sons Farms, headquartered in Yerington, NV. “Our grab-and-go bag with a mix of yellow, red and white onions are a good way to encourage customers to try a greater variety. We’ve also begun to offer all of our varieties, yellow, sweet, red and white, in both conventional and organic.”
New for this fall, Peri & Sons will offer organic white and red pearl onions and organic cippolinis in biodegradable and recyclable clamshell packs. Bulk organic shallots will also be available for the first time.
Shallots and pearl onions comprised 2% and 0.2% of category sales, respectively, according to 52-week Nielsen data ending July 4. Dollars for shallots were up 21.7%, while pearls increased 2.1%, over the previous year.
2. CAPITALIZE ON SUSTAINABLE AND SALABLE PACKAGING
Eco-friendly and themed packaging are two trends in the onion category.
For example, Peri & Sons Farms has created new grab-and-go bag designs that brighten up produce displays with high-graphics paired with information like health tips, recipes and free promotional giveaway offers. The bags also help to reduce packaging waste. Specifically, the amount of plastic the new packaging saves each week would cover three-and-a-half football fields, according to Peri.
Seasonal packaging is a good way to promote onions and raise charitable funds. For example, Shuman Farms offers its Pink Ribbon Bags to raise funds for breast cancer research.
“In October, we will turn our RealSweet sweet onion bags pink and offer display bins for an incremental sales opportunity in produce departments. We have also created in-store signage that boosts the cancer-fighting antioxidants found in sweet onions for stores to use on their displays,” says Shuman.
In November and December, Shuman will change its RealSweet branded bags to include special Feeding America messaging and will donate 50,000 meals to help families in need. The company will offer in-store signage and a digital toolkit with social media graphics for retailers to use to promote this program.
3. BUILD DISPLAYS & CROSS DISPLAYS
Onions are a staple in most households, so we always push for more display space, says Bland Farms’ Bland. “Retailers can build displays at the front of the store when you enter the produce department; use signage, which is very important for sweet onions at the retail level; and put secondary display bins in other areas of their stores.”
Cross merchandising and pairing other items next to onion displays in the produce department, or creating secondary displays elsewhere, are great tools for retailers right now.
“One of the silver linings to come from this pandemic is that more consumers are cooking at home, experimenting with different tastes and textures to essentially give their families a restaurant-worthy meal. Better yet, they are finding recipes to experiment with pickling onions and caramelizing them for new and different tastes that only an onion can deliver. Merchants can capitalize on this by pairing or grouping ingredients of a recipe together. That helps consumers visualize what they could be putting on the dinner table,” says the NOA’s Hardwick.
Currently, Bland Farms is running a cross promotion with Land O’Frost Deli Meat, which inspires consumers to add a slice of sweet onion to their sandwiches. When consumers purchase a bag of Bland Farms onions, they can get 75 cents off a pack of Land O’Frost Premium Deli Meat. This promotion runs through November 2020.
4. PROMOTE, PROMOTE
Promotion is what drives sweet onion movement, says Robért Fresh Market’s Esteve. “An attractive price with a nice display always sells.”
There’s a question as to whether onions are price sensitive. For example, most shoppers don’t notice if the per pound price ranges from 20 to 40 cents. Also, there’s been a narrowing of the price spread between sweet and cooking onions.
That said, “ads drive volume,” according to Potandon’s Breimeister. “Except for Thanksgiving, when onions sell themselves, anytime is a good time to promote.”