Originally printed in the July 2023 issue of Produce Business.
The saying, ‘What’s old is new again,’ is a great way to describe the retail merchandising opportunities for dates.
Native to North Africa and the Middle East, where much of the global supply is still grown, the naturally sweet fruit of the date palm has been cultivated for some 7,000 years. Over the centuries, date plantings traveled to the Mediterranean, and it was the Spanish who introduced the fruit to California, which produces most of the U.S. crop. Today, religious holidays like Ramadan, where eating three dates are the requisite way to break a fast, remain a prime time to sell more dates.
There is a also huge opportunity to market dates year-round as a healthy snack, as nearly three-fourths (72%) of Americans snack daily, according to the 2023 Food and Health Survey, by the Washington, D.C.-based International Food Information Council.
“We added dates to our assortments due to interest in the product, but there’s the added benefit of low perishability and a berry-sized ring, although not the same purchase frequency of berries,” says Maroka Kawamura, senior category manager of produce for New Leaf Community Markets, a six-store chain based in Santa Cruz, CA.
“Dates have a few attributes that are easy to market — nutrition, coupled with decadence, fills a gap with many of our health-oriented shoppers. We’ve shared a few recipes and ways to enjoy over the years, and particularly try to promote during New Year celebrations and Ramadan.”
A common misconception is that dates are dried fruit like prunes, says Bridgette Weber, trade marketing manager for Bard Valley Natural Delights, in Yuma, AZ.
“But dates are not dried or processed; they come off the palm tree looking like they do at the store,” she explains. “Because of this, our products are best merchandised in the produce department with other fresh items.
Household penetration of the date category continues to rise year over year, adds Weber, citing 8.4% as the latest figure for the 52 weeks ending Jan. 2, 2022.
“Dates have seen phenomenal growth over the last five years, and there seems to be no end in sight,” says Ben Antongiovanni, president of Pure Palm Produce, in Bakersfield, CA. “Dates usually rank in the top three dried fruit items and are usually second only to the raisin category. Also, as all demographics are looking to reduce processed sugar in their diets, dates are becoming a go-to natural sugar substitute.”
Dates meet the American Heart Association’s definition of heart-healthy, adds Kristy Kneiding, manager for the California Date Commission (CDC) and California Date Administrative Committee (CDAC), in Indio, CA. She says dates have six essential vitamins and seven minerals and are a good source of fiber, and are recommended on the following popular lifestyle plans: DASH, Mediterranean, paleo, plant-based, and Whole 30.
PRODUCTS AND PACKAGING
At Morton Williams Supermarkets, a 16-store chain based in Bronx, NY, Produce Director Marc Goldman says large, pitted medjool dates are best-sellers there.
Similarly, New Leaf Community Markets carries medjool primarily, “but will also carry a few date rolls with coconut or nuts,” says Kawamura. “Over the years, we’ve leaned into the whole medjool as about 95% of our assortment.”
Medjool and Deglet Noor are the two most popular varieties of dates grown in California, says the CDC and CDAC’s Kneiding. “These are the sweetest, most abundant varieties, and they are very diverse in how they can be used.”
In general, explains Bard Valley Natural Delights’ Weber, “medjool dates are the most popular for snacking and Deglets dates are most popular for baking.”
“We just began expanding our date offerings to include Sukkari and Ajwa varieties,” Weber adds, explaining Awja dates are sourced from Medina, Saudi Arabia, the most preferred growing region in that area. “They are doing really well at a national retailer who took them in as a test and then expanded the offering to year-round because consumer response was so favorable.”
Both conventional and organic dates are widely available year-round. Over the last few years, the industry has been seeing a shift to more organically grown dates. In the combined Natural and MULO (Multi-Outlet) channels for the 52 weeks ending Jan. 1, 2023, organic dates (+12%) are driving overall category growth (+7%), based on SPINs data as supplied by Joolies Organic Medjool Dates, in Coachella Valley, CA.
On the value-added front, pitted medjool date sales keep growing, as consumers use these more for snacking, cooking and shakes, says Pure Palm Produce’s Antongiovanni. “The value-added convenience of removing the pit from the medjool is a welcomed time-hack shoppers will pay a premium for. That is a trend I don’t see going away.”
Date Toppers, stand-up resealable bags with 6 ounces of chopped dates, are one value-added date product from Joolies. A coating of organic rice flour makes these gluten-free and dextrose-free, yet free-flowing to sprinkle over salads and yogurt. Secondly and new, are Jooliettes. These are dark chocolate-covered diced dates sold in a 4-ounce, stand-up, resealable pouch in three flavors: blood orange, matcha, and sea salt. Jooliettes are available in a 12-count, display-ready case.
Joolies has also switched from using a sliding tray with a carton top for its traditional 9-ounce whole and 7-ounce pitted dates to sustainable resealable pouch packaging, says Amanda Sains, director of marketing. “The new pouch product retails for the same price, but now offers a 12-month shelf life.”
Getting the medjool dates out of the antiquated heavy plastic clamshell is better for the environment and the date, adds Hope Barbee, vice president of sales for Double Date Packing, in Coachella, CA. “The pouch has room for educational material, helping the consumers make better choices for their healthy lifestyle.”
The company’s newest package is its snack-oriented multipack, which offers six 1.2-ounce bags of two dates each.
DISPLAY, CROSS-MERCHANDISE AND PROMOTE
Large displays of dried fruits and nuts feature prominently in the produce departments at Morton Williams Supermarkets, says Goldman. “These do well, especially in our Manhattan stores, for grab-and-go snacking. Dates are among the fastest sellers. We also sell the small bags with two dates, and these are big sellers at lunchtime.”
Large displays of dates should be merchandised with bananas, oranges or berries.
“As dates are becoming an everyday purchase for some consumers, it is still an impulse buy for many. A nice, eye-level display helps drive the impulse buy and capture high margin, high ring sales for the produce department,” says Pure Palm Produce’s Antongiovanni.
Merchandising of dates at New Leaf Community Markets varies from check-out register impulse locations to value-added produce and seasonal fruit sets.
Add innovation to displays, says Bard Valley Natural Delights’ Weber. “If you already have pitted or whole dates in your store, add one of our newest product innovations to the lineup. Products like Truffles and mini medjools make it easy for consumers to be introduced to dates if they aren’t already familiar with the fruit.”
This product comes in three flavors: chocolate blueberry, chocolate cherry, and dark chocolate with probiotic added, in 5-ounce resealable bags. All three flavors can be displayed at once in a floor shipper display.
Promotions are key to date sales, says Antongiovanni. “Dates are not very price sensitive, so the discount doesn’t drive sales as much as the produce department paying a little more attention to the display. TPRs usually get the fruit back in the mind of the produce manager. The reminder usually leads to a secondary display that entices the impulse buyer and converts the occasional date shopper into a regular purchaser. Plus, everyone likes a discount from time to time.”