Highlighting Flavor of Specialty Citrus is Key to Increasing Sales

Citrus Selection

The citrus season is getting longer and crops are getting more diverse. That means more opportunities to profitably merchandise this popular fruit.

Citrus is a mainstay in produce departments, especially in the winter months, when U.S.-grown products are in their peak season. But there are more opportunities than ever to merchandise oranges, lemons, limes, Clementines and other types of citrus year-round to shoppers eager for healthy, delicious foods.

“I think people are coming back to citrus now, so it’s about riding that wave,” says Brett Burdsal, director of marketing for Suntreat, an independently owned and operated citrus packing company based in Dinuba, CA.

Citrus has gone through a down period for several reasons. The flavor consumers were used to getting wasn’t always there. Pricing and availability fluctuated as Florida, traditionally the United States’ largest supplier, struggled with citrus greening disease and other problems.

“Generally, citrus sales have been down, mostly due to availability,” says Eddie Martinez, assistant director of produce procurement for Sylmar, CA-based Vallarta Supermarkets, which has nearly 50 stores throughout Southern California.

The decrease in availability that some grocery chains are seeing is caused by several factors. Citrus production has been slowly declining in the United States. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), farmers grew nearly 9 million tons of citrus in the 2014-15 season. By the 2016-17 season, that number had dropped to 7.7 million tons. Production will likely be down even more this year as a result of Hurricane Irma. The Florida Fruit and Marketing Association, Tallahassee, FL, puts the total crop loss at between 30 and 70 percent.

Despite these problems, citrus growers and merchandisers agree that the industry looks bright. A number of export countries (including Mexico, Chile, Spain, Morocco, South Africa and Australia) add to the inventory available to retailers. International suppliers are lengthening the citrus season in which citrus is available, which provides an opportunity for retailers to sell good-quality citrus for longer.

In addition, there are new, intriguing varieties tempting a population that’s more adventurous when it comes to food. Shoppers’ rising interest in healthy and portable snacks is good news for the vitamin-rich fruit. Some of the new citrus choices, including Clementines and specialty citrus, are reminding people just how good citrus can be.

“If you look at what the apple industry has done with the different varieties, they’re all about flavor,” says Burdsal. “That’s what people have gotten accustomed to — ‘Hey, apples taste good again.’ And I think people who have drifted away from the Navels and Valencias are coming back to oranges because we’re growing better Navels and Valencias than ever before.”

Citrus can be marketed to people in any age range, but Millennials and Baby Boomers are prime targets. Other groups to focus on (who are largely subsets within that category) include parents, health enthusiasts and foodies, says Monique Bienvenue, director of communications with Bee Sweet Citrus, a citrus grower/packer/shipper based in Fowler, CA. “Parents want to purchase food that’s going to benefit the health of their children, and health enthusiasts and foodies are eager to find produce that will enhance their health and culinary experiences. Fortunately, citrus can easily meet the needs for multiple markets.”

There are several tactics that work well when reaching out to these groups and other consumers who enjoy citrus.

Specialty Oranges‬

Oranges surpass all other types of citrus grown and eaten in the United States. Farmers brought 5.1 million tons to market in the 2016-17 season. According to the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, DE, oranges are among the Top Five fruits purchased by consumers, along with bananas, apples, grapes and strawberries.

Russ Kiger, sales manager for DLF Packing, a family owned grower/shipper/marketer based in Fort Pierce, FL, says fresh orange juice machines represent a great opportunity for certain retailers. “Millennials and Baby Boomers are really interested in fresh juice,” he reports. “Price really doesn’t seem to be much of an object. I’ve seen it retail from $3.90 for a half-gallon to $14 a half-gallon.”

Another strong market for specialty oranges is the Latino population. “That’s our main market for the bulk,” says Kiger. “They want Florida and they want internal quality as opposed to external quality.” Again, if you have the right customer base, consider promotions that will appeal to this group, including signage in Spanish.

“Cara Cara oranges are a great item to promote during cold and flu season, as this variety packs a nutritious punch.”

— Joan Wickham, Sunkist Growers

Specialty oranges are very popular with consumers. Merchandising them alongside other types of oranges is a way to call attention to the whole category.

Cara Cara oranges are a Navel variety with pink flesh. They have 20 percent more vitamin C and nearly 30 percent more vitamin A than conventional Navel oranges, says Joan Wickham, communications director at Sunkist Growers, a Valencia, CA-based cooperative that works with family farms in California and Arizona. They also contain lycopene, a cancer-fighting antioxidant. These health benefits, combined with less acid and a flavor that has hints of berries, are making them very popular with consumers.

Blood oranges have a darker red flesh and the same berry-tinged taste as Cara Caras. They began showing up in earnest on restaurant and bar menus several years ago, which has helped boost their popularity.

There are multiple opportunities to merchandise these oranges when they’re in season between December and May. “Cara Cara oranges are a great item to promote during cold and flu season, as this variety packs a nutritious punch,” says Wickham. “Sunkist offers secondary display units that tout the nutrition benefits of Cara Caras that can be placed throughout the store.”

To further educate people on the health benefits of these oranges, Suntreat has developed 7-inch by 11-inch cards that will go inside their produce boxes. The cards will share helpful details on the product’s nutrients. “Stores can put them on the shelves, or put them in the back room, or the produce manager can read it,” says Burdsal.

Because there are plenty of shoppers who are still unfamiliar with specialty oranges, Burdsal emphasizes that sampling is still very important. “The healthy benefits are definitely a positive, and people will move toward them because of that; but if you can call out the flavor, they will sell themselves.”

Tangerines‭, ‬Mandarins‭, Clementines‭‬

Tangerines and Mandarins have become a runaway success in the citrus category, with demand increasing every year. Data from Chicago-based IRI shows the Tangerine/Mandarin segment of total citrus dollars went from 39 percent in 2014 to 45.5 percent in 2016. It’s the only category to see growth among U.S. fruit growers between 2014 and 2017. During the 2014-15 season, farmers produced 800,000 tons. By 2016-17, that number had grown to more than 1 million. Mandarin season runs from November until May, although the availability of imports is making the season longer. About 59 percent of Mandarins are purchased on impulse, reports Adam Cooper, vice president of marketing for Wonderful Halos.

Halos from Wonderful Citrus are among the best-known contenders in this category and currently hold more than 50 percent of the market share. Wonderful Citrus, part of The Wonderful Company, Delano, CA, is providing retailers with some new promotional tools this winter.

According to Cooper, the brand is expanding its well-received Good Choice, Kid campaign to include other audiences. “We’ll be speaking more to adults as adult snackers,” he says. “We believe there’s upside potential outside just families. This year we’re rolling out our biggest-ever POS display program.”

Wonderful’s “Grove of Goodness” displays will include small footprint cut-outs of trees where retailers can hang bags of Halos. Alongside the trees are tractors that make the farm-consumer connection by telling the story of how Halos are moved from fields to warehouses. There will also be photo boards with holes where people can put their faces and take photos of themselves with a Halos halo over their heads. The photos can be shared via social media.

Halos aren’t the only fruit with their own Facebook page. Sumo Mandarins from Suntreat are gaining a good following in the United States, which means consumers may be asking for them this year. The Sumo is a relatively large Mandarin that was originally developed in Japan. It looks similar to a Tangelo because it has a knob on the stem end. The Mandarin has a very sweet flavor, is easy to peel and doesn’t have seeds. Most are grown in California’s Central Valley, with some imports coming from Australia.

“It’s been a slow rollout only because of volume, but volume is getting more and more, so we’re doing more and more promotion for it,” says Suntreat’s Burdsal. The Sumo will have its own decorative box that can be used to build displays. The four-time World Sumo Championship winner, Ulambayar Byambajav, also known as Byamba, recently signed on to be the fruit’s official spokesperson.

For shoppers seeking other new Mandarin choices, the Gold Nugget is another option. It gets its name from the bumpy, bright-colored rind that protects extremely sweet, seedless flesh. Gold Nugget Mandarins are available from Bee Sweet Citrus, Sunkist and other producers.

The key to successfully merchandising Mandarins is to make them visible, says Ed Osowski, director of produce for Martin’s Supermarkets, a family owned chain based in South Bend, IN, that has stores in northern Indiana and southern Michigan. “By the time we bring them in, we’ve been without Clementines for a while, so we’ll get them out front. If you put them in a row they get lost because consumers aren’t looking for them.”

Clementines and Mandarins do very well around the winter holidays, he notes, so Martin’s carries a lot more of them in November and December.

One key to merchandising Clementines is to make them available in packages of various sizes.

“In the wintertime, people will promote with the 5-pound boxes and 2- or 3-pound bags,” says Paul Coffman, sales manager for LGS Specialty Sales, a produce importer and distributor based in New Rochelle, NY. “The two different package types let you hit a large household and small household.”

“We’re starting to see some Clementines in a high-graphic clear plastic bag, kind of like what the grape growers are using,” says Vallarta’s Martinez. “Those seems to do pretty good. They give the fruit a nice appearance.”

Joseph Bunting, director of produce for United Supermarkets, which has stores throughout Texas and New Mexico and is based in Lubbock, TX, has a similar strategy. “When you get around Thanksgiving, we’re pushing Clementines real hard,” he says. “Oranges have really taken a back seat to Clementine sales. We do 5-pound boxes because people are having a lot of family gatherings and large events.”

United Supermarkets carries Halos, and likes to cross-merchandise them with other products from The Wonderful Company. “Right now we are looking at displaying them with pomegranates and pistachios. It fits with that winter theme,” says Bunting.

Lemons and Limes‬

“Lemons and limes sell year-round,” says Osowski. “Merchandising them is not that big of an issue.”

But for people who are looking for new ways to promote the yellow and green citrus, there are a few possibilities. One is to focus on the fruit’s benefits in cooking and improving health.

“Sunkist promotes lemons as a great flavor enhancement in cooking to reduce sodium intake,” says Wickham. “As part of Sunkist’s S’alternative program, retailers can promote recipes and instructions for shoppers who are looking to manage sodium intake without sacrificing flavor.”

Another way to sell more lemons is to offer consumers specialty varieties. Meyer lemons, which have a sweeter flavor than convention varieties, are now available year-round. Variegated pink lemons will stop shoppers in their tracks. Finger limes are long, green skinned fruit that contain tiny pearls, giving the fruit the nickname “caviar limes.”

“Limes are more of a condiment,” says Vallarta Supermarkets’ Martinez. “They’re used to squeeze on something or cook with, or use in beverages.” For that reason, his stores tend to merchandise them separately from oranges and Clementines, which Martinez describes as “an eating piece of fruit.” Managers have cross-merchandised them with beer, salsa and other items.

Grapefruit

Grapefruit production is down nearly 25 percent in the United States.

“Grapefruit is a category that for us is really in decline,” says Martin’s Supermarkets’ Osowski. “We don’t sell anywhere near the number we did in the past.”

“One of the reasons it’s been a challenge is some of the prescription medications interact with grapefruit, so there are many people who can’t eat grapefruit if they’re on it,” says Bunting.

According to Osowski, sales of Pommelos and some of the specialty products have increased. Pommelos are the largest member of the citrus family. They have green skin and a very thick layer of pith that leads to pinkish segments in the interior.

The Melogold specialty grapefruit is a cross between a Pommelo and a white grapefruit. The result is a citrus with yellow to pale green skin on the outside, and yellow flesh with a sweet-tart flavor on the inside.

To promote grapefruit, remind consumers that the fruit has uses far beyond breakfast. Sunkist has recipes for using grapefruit in mixed drinks, salads, popsicles and other desserts, as well as smoothies.

Specialty Citrus

“What we look for is to offer as much variety as our sales will allow,” says United Supermarkets’ Bunting. “Consumers are looking for something new and different.”

That goes a long way toward explaining the popularity of specialty citrus.

“We always try to add one or two of them into our kids club,” says Osowski, a program that gives participating children between the ages of 5 and 12 one free produce item every month. “By highlighting a specialty piece of citrus, it gets it into a lot of consumers’ hands. It’s kind of like demoing it, but they can take it home and try it and share it. We do a lot of sampling, especially on the specialty citrus,” he adds. “Shoppers don’t want to spend a lot of money without tasting it. If they know what an unfamiliar product tastes, like they’re much more likely to pick it up.”

Bunting recommends stores cut specialty citrus items in half, overwrap them and place them on top of their displays. “It shows off the quality inside it,” he says.

It can also help to inform shoppers about what they’re buying when they pick up that regular-looking orange or lemon.

“We’ve noticed that many consumers aren’t as accustomed to some of the more exotic varieties, such as Cara Caras and Blood oranges,” says Bee Sweet’s Bienvenue. “To help combat this, we launched an extension of our #EatMoreCitrus campaign. We will be highlighting one specific specialty variety each month throughout the duration of our domestic season. ”

Increasing Year-Round Sales

“Although winter is peak season for citrus, the demand for it is year-round,” says Bienvenue. “Its versatility and easy, on-the-go qualities make it a perfect snack for work or school. It can also act as an ingredient in numerous meals.”

One of the keys to merchandising citrus in the off-season is to highlight only items that are good quality. “If you can keep the flavor, you can keep them as long as you want,” says Suntreat’s Burdsal. “As soon as people start buying a boring piece of fruit they’re going to stop.”

To ensure citrus stays tasty, it’s important to keep displays well maintained.

“You want to make sure you keep it fresh,” says Osowski. “The last thing a consumer wants to do is buy a piece of fruit that’s been sitting around for a while.”

“Rotate fruit in storage and on display so the more mature fruit is sold first,” says Wickham.

It’s also important to store the fruit correctly.

“Cartons should be kept on racks in a cool, well ventilated area,” says Wickham. “The recommended storage temperature for oranges, lemons, Tangerines, Mandarins and Tangelos is 41 to 42 degrees F. The recommended storage temperature for grapefruit is 47 to 48 degrees and limes are recommended at 48 to 52 degrees.”

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