Hitting The Sweet Spot

Wegmans 2013 retail

Proper merchandising keeps sweet onions selling year-round.

Sweet onions have been marketed in the United States for more than a 100 years but have only recently become a year-round product in supermarket produce departments.

This is because, over the past several years, demand for sweet onions has been steadily increasing, fueled by increased consumer awareness and the growing popularity of these products.

Whole Foods Market bustour2014 OnionsFor a period of time, the available supply of authentic sweet onions was lagging behind the demand. However, with more consumers seeking sweet onions from both coasts, additional varieties have been developed or imported to meet this need.  “Onions are one of the most consumed produce items in the world,” says Marty Kamer, vice president of Keystone Fruit Marketing, Keystone, PA. “Average annual per capita onion consumption in the United States is 21 pounds, a tremendous opportunity for consistent sales.”

Sweet onions have become a staple in many consumers’ kitchens due to a mild, sweet flavor and versatility in a variety of dishes.

“Growing steadily over the last decade, sweet onion sales have either been tied with or have overtaken yellow cooking onion sales,” says John Shuman, president of Shuman Produce, Reidsville, GA. “Year-round availability and consumer demand continue to drive these trends, and retailers can capitalize by keeping sweet onions on their shelves all year.”   The latest research shows sweet onions continue to be the onion category leader, making up the largest share of total onion dollar sales.

“We do a lot of merchandising and cross-merchandising with recipes and onion ring mix. We also display in end caps and put onions up front to increase visibility.”

— Ted Romero, G&G Supermarkets

“So, while consumers do continue to purchase conventional onions, 81 percent of consumers say they like their onions mild and sweet,” says Greg Smith, marketing communications manager of Bland Farms, Cato, NY. “If we drill further down into the sweet onion category segment, Vidalia sweet onions represent 62 percent of sweet onion sales.”

Effective Merchandising

The popularity of this category is no surprise to G&G Supermarkets’ two locations in Santa Rosa and Petaluma, CA, which carry sweet onions year-round.

“Currently, we’re offering a 2-pound Peruvian sweet onion, but during the season, Vidalias are very popular,” says Ted Romero, produce manager. “We do a lot of merchandising and cross-merchandising with recipes and onion ring mix. We also display in end caps and put onions up front to increase visibility.”

Sweet onions also sell well all year at Tadych’s Econo Foods, a Brillion, WI-based supermarket chain with three Wisconsin and three Michigan locations.

“We have our staff at all stores educate customers on other sweet onions apart from Vidalias,” says Jim Weber, produce supervisor. “Like anything else, sales depend on growing conditions and availability, and the demographic is all across the board.”

Shuman Produce Vidalia DisplayThe store displays all onions in one area and cross-merchandises sweet onions with condiments and barbecue sauces. “When these products are on ad, we’ll put together a full end cap display,” says Weber.

Sweet onions present an opportunity for incremental produce sales particularly when the health and flavor benefits are highlighted.

For example, the onion’s sweet and mild flavor is a good fit for a burger or salad topping as well as part of a shish kebab or atop steak. “Sweet onions are most often used to enhance flavors in a wide range of recipes, including salads, soups, stews and casseroles,” says Kamer. “These onions also are used as a garnish in sandwiches, wraps and in classic Mexican or Italian cuisine. Approximately 15 to 18 percent of onions are processed for use in prepared food items, such as salsa, soups and appetizers.”

Merchandising sweet onions alongside additional products that can be combined to produce an easy meal solution draws consumers in and raises the ring at the register.

“We suggest placing sweet onions in the center of the produce department for maximum effect,” says Shuman. “For example, a display including sweet onions, bagged salad, tomatoes and refrigerated dressings could be used to create a flavorful salad promotion.”

Spring and the grilling season are prime times to promote sweet onions. “Pulling grilling items into the produce department, whether it’s aluminum foil, spatulas or fresh herbs, can bring added attention to a display,” says Kim Reddin, director of public and industry relations for the Greeley, CO-based National Onion Association. Educating shoppers about the varieties and attributes is key. Helping the consumer identify sweet onions, whether they are from the Vidalia region, California, Peru, Texas, etc., is important in order to distinguish this type from conventional yellows and to further identify the origin.

Vidalia packaging“Research shows 67 percent of shoppers look at packaging, pricing or signage to identify the type of onion being purchased, so it’s key these are labeled as sweet to best capitalize on sales,” says Smith.

Research also shows merchandising onions near other specific produce items generate a greater likelihood for sales. “For instance, consumers who purchase sweet onions are 5.6 times more likely to purchases peppers, 4.8 times more likely to purchase mushrooms, and 4 times more likely to buy carrots on the same trip,” says Smith.

Research from Shuman Produce and Nielsen Perishables Group shows sweet onions drive sales of a variety of other items. Consumers with sweet onions in their carts are more likely to purchase celery, tomatoes and bagged salad as well as fresh meats, such as beef and chicken.

Bland Farms’ sweet onions are often successfully cross-merchandised amongst the company’s sweet potatoes and Vidalia brand snacks. During the holiday months, the company offers a split full-sized high graphic bin filled on one side with sweet potatoes and the other side with sweet onions.

Retailers also will cluster locally-grown sweet onions for higher exposure.   “Expanded footage, secondary displays and of course, cross-merchandising are very effective,” says Barry Rogers, president of the Sweet Onion Trading Co., based in Melbourne, FL.

Capitalizing On Trends

Although Tadych’s Econo Foods typically carries one type of sweet onion at a time, there have been overlaps.

“We start with the Northwest Sweets from Idaho, then move into the 10/15s, followed by the Vidalias, and lastly the Walla Wallas,” says Weber. “The Vidalias are the most popular, with imports and domestic sweet onions selling at about the same rate.”

“Endcaps, stand-alones, value-added product offerings, multi-size strategies and consumer bagged displays offer consumers multiple buying options and ensure sales lift.”

— Marty Kamer, Keystone Fruit

With the recent focus on local produce, some companies are seeing a shift toward domestic sweet onions. “If a consumer had a choice between domestic or imported, they would choose domestic,” says Jessica Peri, retail sales manager at Peri & Sons Farms, Yerington, NV. “If they aren’t given a direct choice with both on the shelf, I think the consumer would buy the imported product if that is all that was available.”

Keystone Mayan Sweet OnionsIn terms of onion types, many consumers mix and match. While whites or yellows are most often used for cooking, reds are relegated to salads and sandwiches. “Real onion lovers know white onions are the best for cooking, because they have the highest sugar content and do not leave a bitter taste in their cooked meals,” says Peri.

Peri & Sons offers a combo pack with red, white and yellow onions in hopes of having consumers try an onion they may not have picked up in the past.

Sweet onion sales are largely dependent on the season, as domestic product can only be harvested in spring and early summer. There have been issues in the past where regular onions have been mislabeled or passed off as sweet onions, which is misleading to consumers.

“One of the biggest problems with sweet onions is when stores put stickers on regular onions designating sweet to make more money, which kills the category,” says Brian Kastick, president at Savannah, GA-based Saven Corp., supplier of OSO Sweet Onions. “Stores enjoy higher gross sales when they sell true sweet onions and have distinct programs that accentuate the differences.”

Due to this increased demand of sweet onions, many retailers have found it advantageous to carry bulk or loose jumbo sweet onions as well as consumer bags of medium sweet onions. “Endcaps, stand-alones, value-added product offerings, multi-size strategies and consumer bagged displays offer consumers multiple buying options and ensure sales lift,” says Kamer at Keystone Fruit.

Also, signage is an effective medium to educate consumers on the differences in flavors, textures and uses of sweet, yellow and red onions. By providing insight on the onions’ attributes and also details on the origin, retailers are ensuring consumers won’t be disappointed with their purchase.

“Consumers are putting onions in their baskets if they’re cooking at home,” says the National Onion Association’s Reddin. “This is one of the most purchased items.”

Sweet Onion Tutorial

Chef Dave

Keystone Fruit holds in-store demonstrations with a chef, and shoppers are selected to participate. This activity introduces new recipes that emphasize quality, flavor, nutrition and the food safety differences of authentic sweet onions versus regular cooking onions.

To properly market and merchandise sweet onions, it helps to be familiar with the traits and types.

Onions are sweet due to the lack and dilution of sulfur. Traditional onions are the long day type, since these are planted in spring, growing when the days are longer in summer, and harvested in fall. Sweet onions are short day, since these are planted in October or November. Those planted before October 15 are referred to as 10/15s.

Sweet onions contain more water than other varieties and, for this reason, have a shorter shelf life. This type also is named after the growing areas, such as Vidalia from Georgia, Walla Walla from Washington and Peru.

Onions Etc., a sweet onion shipper and repacker, is a division of Farmington Fresh based in Granite Bay, CA. The company supplies product to more than 2,500 retail stores, primarily on the West Coast. “Vidalia sweet onions sell great on the East Coast, but aren’t as popular on the West Coast,” says Derrell Kelso, Jr., president of Onions Etc. “The imported variety is available during the winter months in the U.S., and is a strong seller.”

Onions also are distinguished by use. While the sweet type is used for cooking and as a topping or raw ingredient, the pungent variety is more likely to be a recipe component.

“Chefs would rather cook with long day onions, because this type has more soluble solids and less water, so the cooking time is reduced.” says Kelso. “Sweet onions are more common in salads, on burgers and with dishes as a feature flavor.”

Onions Etc. has seen impressive sales of Peruvian sweet onions by retailers who put the product front and center with promotions to highlight the attributes. The sweeter the onion, the higher the sales.

“Onions can be used in more than 90 percent of recipes, so there are many opportunities to cross-merchandise these products,” says Kelso. “Also, retailers can bag this product and include recipes to grow incremental sales.”

Consumer knowledge is key to increased sales. Onions Etc., is working with retailers to implement smart phone apps with usage information to better educate customers.

Getting the Word Out

Keeping sweet onions front and center year-round with innovative marketing and displays is effective in growing sales at the store level.

Brillion, WI-based Tadych’s Econo Foods runs sweet onions on ad starting in early spring, including Vidalias when this variety is in season. “We have Vidalia promotions every three weeks until the season ends,” says Jim Weber, produce supervisor. Because sweet onion availability depends on the season, this segment is especially impacted by promotional programs that educate consumers.

For example, unlike Vidalia onions that can be kept in cold storage for months at a time, Walla Walla sweet onions have a short shelf life. In Wisconsin, the Walla Walla-type onions are planted in April and are harvested beginning in July. They’re usually on the market until fall, and smaller than those grown in Washington. In Walla Walla, the season is June-August.

These delicate onions are 95 percent water with a very mild flavor and low pyruvic acid, which determines the amount of sweetness.

Bulk Onion Display“We have a niche market, and there’s such a small window of opportunity for these products, the onions should be the focus during the season,” says Kathy Fry-Trommald, executive director of Walla Walla Sweet Onion Marketing, based in Walla Walla, WA.

The organization offers point of purchase materials, including recipe card packets, onion posters that are frameable, and signage.

“Retailers should build a display at the department’s entrance, stacking 40-pound boxes and including attractive signage, which will help move these items,” says Fry-Trommald. “It’s critical to push these onions during the season and emphasize that these are a limited time offer product, which helps set them apart.” Sweet onions are an ideal promotion item for inclusion in a wide range of recipes, so providing information on usage ideas is key.

“Thirty percent of consumers say they would buy and eat more fruits and vegetables if they know how to use them,” says Marty Kamer, vice president of Keystone Fruit Marketing, Keystone, PA.

Fortunately, today’s packaging includes usage tips, recipes and nutrition details. Growers, shippers and retailers continuously strive to develop packaging and displays to catch the eye of the consumer, at the same time providing information on nutrition and utilizing point of purchase products to boost sales. Also, food TV, celebrity chefs, cooking shows and all forms of media have brought added awareness to fresh fruits and vegetables. Onions are a big part of this awareness as a staple ingredient, which naturally resonates through to increased consumption and higher sales numbers at the store. Effective point-of-purchase materials and signage helps showcase the nutritional benefits and flavor of sweet onions to consumers.

Keystone Fruit holds in-store demos with a chef, where shoppers are selected to participate. This introduces new recipes that emphasize quality, flavor, nutrition and the food safety differences of authentic sweet onions versus regular cooking onions. Shuman Produce works with Chef and The Fat Man (Kevin Jenkins and Erik Holdo who are Atlanta radio personalities and culinary celebrities) on a regular basis to present consumers with recipes, tips and videos featuring sweet onions.

“As our retail partners know, displays drive sales, and that’s why we provide bags, bins and boxes that work to complement each other and feature the product with bright and colorful imagery to draw consumers’ eyes and attention,” says John Shuman, president of Shuman Produce, Reidsville, GA.

The company also provides retailers with point-of-sale materials for in-store displays featuring photos of its fields and facts about the health benefits.

“Shoppers are looking for information on the web prior to and during their shopping trips, and we provide a virtual tour of our fields with a slideshow of our growing and harvesting processes as well as video content introducing consumers to our farms, farmers and the story behind Shuman Produce,” says Shuman. “All of this information can be found on our mobile-friendly website as well as through our social media channels.”

With targeted consumers, mainly Millennials, influenced by TV, Pinterest and other social media, signage is important to provide links and information to boost the category.

“When consumers understand the seasonality aspect of sweet onions, even if it’s just a simple chart saying what onions are available when and from where, it enhances the display’s impact,” says Kim Reddin, director of public and industry relations for the Greeley, CO-based National Onion Association.

Because each season is different in terms of sweet onion availability, there is more potential for creative ads and displays with this product category.

“Retailers can change the feel of the display by including the story, history or photos of the growers to better connect consumers with sweet onions,” says Brian Kastick, president at Savannah, GA-based Saven Corp., supplier of OSO Sweet Onions.