Help Consumers Find Dates Via Merchandising, Recipes

Promoting health benefits, expanding availability beyond holidays can be lift for produce.

The challenges of marketing and merchandising dates effectively in supermarket produce departments are real — but so are the opportunities.

Dates are traditionally most popular during the holidays, and there are many ways to encourage sales during that time of year. However, dates have a longer season than just Thanksgiving through Christmas, and imported dates can be marketed year-round.

Educating consumers about the variety of health benefits that dates provide — as well as the many ways they can be used — is a surefire way to fuel increased sales. So is providing recipes and other suggestions on how to use dates in tasty and original ways.

What To Do With Dates

“There are a lot of consumers who don’t really know what to do with dates,” says David Baxter, product marketing manager at Yuma, AZ-based Bard Valley Medjool Date Growers, which markets the Natural Delights brand. “So, when promoting dates, educating the consumer on the many ways to use them in recipes is key to getting them to trial the product.”

When it comes to merchandising, Baxter points out, visibility is key. “Dates need to be easy to find for those consumers who are looking for dates, and they need to stand out as a new option for consumers who don’t regularly consume dates.”

Retailers need to keep consumer education in mind as they plan their merchandising and marketing strategy. Baxter says, “the more you can educate the consumer on the many ways to use dates, the more they will buy.”

In addition, he says, highlighting the health benefits of dates is another key for consumers. Dates are an excellent source of fiber and have lots of potassium, which are both part of a healthy diet. “With a lot of retailers staffing registered dietitians, making sure that they are considering dates in their recommendations will go a long way in getting consumers to add dates to their diet.”

Though dates do not need to be treated differently than dried fruit, there is a distinction in their characteristics, according to Baxter. “Natural Delights dates are actually not a dried fruit; our dates are a fresh fruit. This is one of the common misconceptions about our dates, because of the appearance. But our dates can maintain a long shelf life without being dried because of the natural properties of the fresh fruit.” While they do fine at room temperature, he adds, “refrigerating them will only prolong their lifespan.”

There are a lot of people who eat dates every day, and for various reasons. Some of Bard Valley’s biggest consumers, Baxter notes, are people who “use dates to fuel their active lifestyle and support their healthy eating.  But there are also a lot of people who just eat dates as a snack because they are a great source of energy for anyone looking for a midday boost.”

Dates are loaded with fiber and potassium, which can help support recovery after a workout. In addition, dates are very sweet but are a low glycemic-index fruit, which means the sugars in dates don’t spike a person’s insulin levels, but rather provide sustained energy.

Dates can be cross-merchandised with many items because they can be used in so many ways. “One of the favorite date recipes is dates stuffed with goat cheese and wrapped in bacon,” notes Baxter. “Given goat cheese is also found near most produce sections, that would be a great option.” A popular item, he adds, is salad toppers, since dates are a natural addition to salads.

Bob Sickles, the owner of Sickles Market in Little Silver, NJ, confesses that although “dates are not a big thing for us,” Date Lady Date Syrup is an “up-and-coming” product. “I think as a natural sugar source, dates will become more popular here. I also think that in a state like California, they are an increasingly important item.”

Medjools are “always pretty popular,” adds Sickles, while Barhi “are coming on. Unripe dates on the stem are pretty cool; they are being used more and more as an accompaniment to cheese.”

Dates For Dates

The changing seasons provide another solid opportunity for retailers to focus attention squarely on dates.

As dates have become more popular, Baxter points out, “the spectrum of who consumes them has broadened significantly since they can offer so many benefits to so many people — from fiber to sugar replacement to potassium to aid workout recovery.” Traditionally, of course, the largest selling seasons have been Ramadan, Easter and the end-of-year holiday season.

 “Traditionally, Medjool dates were looked at as a fall holiday treat,” notes Ben Antongiovanni, president of Pure Palm Produce in Bakersfield, CA. “That is not the case anymore. The date category has exploded over the past few years, and retailers see good sales year-round.”

Some store managers still think of dates as a fall item, Antongiovanni has found. “So, it is important to promote regularly in all four quarters. Steady promotions remind the stores to keep dates prominently on display, and to help turn inventory.”

Executives at Pure Palm have found dates are strong movers all year long. “More and more consumers are snacking on dates during the day for sustained energy,” notes Antongiovanni. “We are also seeing growth with the morning shake crowd. Dates are a great healthy-drink ingredient that fits into many of today’s top diets.”

Like so many others, he finds the best sales periods are in the fourth quarter, as well as Easter and Ramadan. “Ramadan starts early May this year and lasts for a month. We are currently gearing up for strong Easter/Passover sales, with Ramadan coming on strong right after.”

In order to sell more dates, retailers should keep high-ring dates off the floor and out of the shadow boxes, says Antongiovanni. The quality and sizing of his own brand of California Medjool dates is “outstanding, and our packaging’s large viewing window shows off the excellent quality.”

To maximize sales and impulse buys, he says, dates need to be at eye level and visible. “We also recommend to retailers that they merchandise Medjool dates with date rolls, pitted dates and chopped dates to increase incremental rings.”

Dates are loaded with fiber, notes Antongiovanni, “a great source of potassium and a good substitute for bananas. Many athletes and active consumers are eating dates before and during workouts for steady energy. They are also very helpful in recovery after a hard workout.”

Antongiovanni says dates should be displayed alongside the bananas or berries in the produce department. “We find retailers who build small secondary displays with the bananas or berries are very successful at moving volume.”