Maximizing California Grape Sales

California Table GrapesPhoto Courtesy of California Table Grapes

Retailers can benefit from prominent display with a variety of quality product.

Just as Georgia is known for its Vidalia onions and Washington for its apples, California has long been identified with its large crop of grapes. Not surprisingly, the continued proliferation of new varieties is also creating additional marketing opportunities for supermarket produce departments to get the most profit from this popular fruit.

Bari Grapes

Photo Courtesy of Bari Grapes

There are more than 85 varieties of California grapes available in green, red and black. The growing season for these products is long, spanning from May through January. The top six seedless types include red Scarlet Royal; green Autumn King; red Flame; red Crimson; green Sugraone; and black Autumn Royal.

“California grape varieties and production techniques have been copied worldwide,” says John Pandol, director of special projects at Delano, CA-based Pandol.

The latest research from the Fresno, CA-based California Table Grape Commission shows 80 percent of primary grocery shoppers in the United States purchase grapes and 59 percent eat grapes at least once a week. About two-fifths of shoppers, or 41 percent, report buying grapes at least weekly. This is consistent with past years’ research, where consumers have consistently said they consider grapes a frequent and important purchase. In the United States, a household’s primary shopper is the one most often eating grapes.

“Recent research shows 94 percent of primary grape shoppers in the United States prefer grapes from California over other origins when grapes are priced the same,” says Cindy Plummer, vice president of domestic marketing for the California Table Grape Commission. “And 69 percent say they still prefer California grapes even if they’re priced higher than grapes from other origins.”

Getting The Word Out

Today, with multiple new California grape varieties being cultivated, supermarket retailers are looking for unique varieties that will stand out among all the others.

“Cotton Candy, Autumn Crisp and Pristine are examples of three varieties that have been developed and marketed by different growing concerns,” says Nick Dulcich, co-owner and president of Sunlight International Sales, based in McFarland, CA.

And new varieties of table grapes from the state continue to be introduced each year, with different characteristics in terms of flavor, consistency, size and color. Growers emphasize that with this fruit, consistency, rather than a larger size, is the goal.

Bakersfield, CA-based Giumarra Vineyards Corp.. is focused on growing its grapes through the company’s ARRA Proprietary Breeding program. “By investing in, and growing these new varieties, we’re trying to maintain a consistent, quality box of fruit,” says Mimi Corsaro-Dorsey, vice president of marketing and director of export sales. “We’re focused on ways to grow the standard USDA varieties for optimal flavor and sugar, rather than just a jumbo size.”

Giumarra Vineyards’ offerings include Sweeties or ARRA 15, jumbo green, mid-season grapes with sugar and crunch; ARRA 29, a very early, large red grape, with a sweet taste and meaty texture; ARRA 28, a late season, large red grape with a vivid pinkish-red color and a distinctive sweet flavor; and ARRA 32, a mid-season, large black seedless grape that features a unique sweet taste.
Different combinations of characteristics make each California grape variety unique, with various eating, quality and production characteristics.

“California grape growers continue to look at high flavor varities, making sure the sugar is there, as well as seeking more proprietary grapes.”

— Scott Boyajian, Sunview Marketing International

Eating characteristics encompass flavor, brix, acid, skin thickness, sterility, interior texture, juice and crunch, while quality characteristics involve the grape’s color as well as the bunch shape and berry size, according to Corsaro-Dorsey. Production characteristics deal with storage and shelf-life issues, limited inputs, low labor, water, size of the yield, rain resistance and the length of the season.

Sunview Marketing International in McFarland, CA, is one of largest growers of organic California grapes, which are now rarely segmented apart from conventional fruit in many produce departments.

“We are continuing to grow in organics because the market continues to expand,” says Scott Boyajian, sales manager at Sunview Marketing International. “Approximately 90 percent of all table grapes grown in the United States are from California, since the sunshine and climate are ideal conditions for growing this fruit.”

For the last couple of years, Sunview Marketing International has seen growth in its Stella Bella green grape, which is becoming more available this year. The elongated fruit is crisp and juicy. The company also has five red grape varieties.

“California grape growers continue to look at high flavor varieties, making sure the sugar is there, as well as seeking more proprietary grapes,” says Boyajian. “The high quality of this fruit has many of these companies upping their game.”

Madera, CA-based Bari Produce has been marketing its grapes for 60 years. The growing season for its seven varieties begins July 10, and the fruit is harvested in early November.

“Ten to 15 years ago, there was a more limited variety of California grapes; today there are dozens of different types,” says Justin Bedwell, Bari Produce’s president. “Growers want to sell unique varieties for each particular year, but there are only so many PLU numbers to go around.”

When five different shippers/packers are using the same PLU numbers for identical grape varieties, there is the concern that consistency can vary amongst the crops. Yet, there is only a certain amount of SKUs and PLU numbers allocated to grapes that companies can pull from.

Still, many companies like Sunview Marketing are constantly looking at new varieties, testing and putting to trial those with specific attributes.

“These are products that need to be grown and tested over time, not just created,” says Boyajian. “Grape varieties from California are typically known for added sweetness due to the climate and soil quality.”

Keeping The Quality

Quality is paramount with California grapes. Because consumers buy with their eyes, the fruit on display needs to look fresh and appealing to entice added sales at the retail level. Research shows grapes displayed under refrigeration will retain good quality for 48 hours. It’s important to note grapes on a non-refrigerated display will begin to show shrink within 24 hours.

To better understand this fruit, it helps to be aware of how it’s produced. Grapevines are farmed in different ways to get different results; and as a result, there is information that can be shared between the growers.

“For example, in fresh grapes we really didn’t have the concept of maximum maturities like some of the processed grapes,” says Pandol of Pandol Bros. “In reality, each variety has a minimum, optimum and maximum maturity and some of the newer varieties have smaller windows for optimum flavor harvest.”

How the flavor and texture is maintained after harvest also is variety-specific, say experts, so storage life is being re-evaluated in this segment. Consequently, there have been new approaches to ensure fresher grapes are offered to the end consumer.

Alternative packaging designs have been created to better manage shelf-life, as well as enhance merchandising and ease of transport.

“Rigid packaging is expensive to produce, and bulk has increased shrink disadvantages,” says Sunlight’s Dulcich. “As a result, stand-up pouch bags have become the all-around solution.”

Shippers stepped up the marketing possibilities for California grapes by embracing the pouch, as this packaging best showcases the product and is easily transportable.

Clamshells also have become more prevalent and are mainly used for branded varieties or varietal mixes, yet handle pouch bags continue to be the most requested type in the United States, according to suppliers, and are becoming more popular overseas. Many tout the clarity of these bags as a boon for merchandising at the retail level.

“Probably more interesting is the use of the GTIN code on bags as opposed to the PLU, which will give the retailer the ability to offer multiple varieties of the same color grape at different price points, track which varieties are successful and increase sales to grow the grape category in their stores,” says Giumarra Vineyards’ Corsaro-Dorsey.

Growers are now experimenting with softer, less rigid plastics for grape packaging.

While the first generation of bags used polymers that tore easily, the next generation of thicker polymers didn’t tear and were too rigid. Today, a new wave of bag materials that are structurally adequate, offer higher clarity and are more flexible have been introduced.

“Several years ago, manufacturers used high-graphic or glossy bags to appeal to consumers; now we’re seeing more fixed and random weight bags and clamshells for club stores with fixed weight and UPCs,” says Sunview Marketing International’s Boyajian. “The benefit with fixed-weight packaging is these can be in any size, and with clamshells a variety of grape colors can be mixed to add more visual appeal and better differentiate the varying types.”

Unfortunately, suppliers say some retailers are still proposing procurement, distribution and packaging regimes that are less than optimal for grapes.

“For years the industry has been trying to get retailers to not stack grapes, which damages the fruit below,” says Pandol Bros.’ Pandol. “Stack ‘em high and let ‘em fly’ might work for cans and boxes, but it doesn’t work for delicate produce items. The semi-rigid pouch bag has helped. I visited one chain that had a vertical chilled case with shelves designed for one grape bag each, which worked beautifully.”

Bari Produce focuses on consistency, rather than fruit size, in terms of its grape offerings.

“Retailers may get inconsistent quality for a lower price,” says Bari Produce’s Bedwell. “To keep this fruit at peak quality while providing increased visibility, it’s important grapes are kept refrigerated, yet secondary locations can also peak consumer interest.”

Proper Placement

The most effective way retailers can capitalize on California grapes is to make sure the displays are clearly visible, eye-catching and well-stocked at all times.

Multiple display locations also are a good way to sell more grapes from this region. Creating primary, secondary, conventional, organic, refrigerated and non-refrigerated sections helps generate more purchase opportunities, say suppliers.

In terms of location, California grapes are nearly always merchandised with other grapes, especially during multi-color promotions, or with other fruit.

“I’d also like to see these items merchandised with bagged salads and fresh-cut fruit, since grapes are so convenient, and no prep is required aside from washing,” says Corsaro-Dorsey of Giumarra Vineyards.

Promoting usage ideas also can help increase grape sales. The California Table Grape Commission provides recipes and other marketing tools for retailers.

The Commission offers a variety chart that includes the color and berry shape to help educate produce department staff and consumers about the different California grape characteristics.

Pandol Bros. grows 19 varieties of California grapes, with the characteristics varying, depending on the season and zone from year to year.

“Sometimes grape quality has to do with the growing and sometimes it has to do with the way the fruit was handled between the farm, store and beyond,” says Pandol. “I always remind consumers that most retailers permit, and even encourage, tasting before purchasing.”

Because a great-looking display is key to selling this fruit, refreshing product is important and should be performed regularly by produce department staff to keep grapes appealing.

“If consumers see older, duller grapes mixed with brighter, recently arrived grapes, it sends a subliminal message that this is a produce item with a short shelf-life. This can negatively impact the sales of these products,” says Pandol.

Attracting Attention

While almost half of consumers decide to buy grapes once they are in the store, a majority of consumers prefer to make a shopping list in advance and pre-plan specific fruit purchases.

Sampling is always a good way to spur purchase and encourage consumers to try new California grape varieties. When sampling grapes, retailers should make sure not too many are washed ahead of time, so the fruit will look its best.

When it comes to promoting grapes, offering customers more options can increase sales and keep grapes top-of-mind. The California Table Grape Commission’s research shows promoting multiple varieties of California grapes and front-page ads on fliers can create larger volume lifts.

Bari Produce works with the California Table Grape Commission to do blanket ads in conjunction with retailers, wholesalers and the export market.

“This makes it easy to market our product,” says Bari Produce’s Bedwell. “We can utilize the ad for promoting varieties, sizes and prices of grapes, with the Commission opening the door so we can fine-tune the message for our specific customer base.”

Prominent packaging also has been beneficial to this fruit category.

“Packaging ‘talks’ to the consumer and they learn to recognize brands, colors and logos of excellent products when they are presented consistently at the department level,” says Sunlight International Sales’ Dulcich.

Cross-merchandising, especially for brands with other grape products like jams or juices, can help bring added attention to displays. Decent signage is key.

For optimal merchandising, grapes should be kept refrigerated, displays should remain full and point-of-sale materials should be well placed. Experts recommend merchandising this product between four and six feet of displays, in addition to front-end placement, along with cross-merchandising in the wine and cheese departments.

“Grapes are one of the top five staple produce items, since this is a convenient, easy commodity to consume,” says Bedwell. “In the last two years, we have had record grape crops, and everyone has done a great job marketing this fruit.”

Capturing a Wide Range of Preferences

The long growing season in California — May to January — produces more
than 85 varieties of fresh California grapes, according to the California Table Grapes Commission, Fresno, CA. Offering multiple varieties can give consumers both familiar options, such as the top 15 varieties, while also providing some new or seasonal choices. In 2015, the top 15 varieties of California table grapes represented 88 percent of the total crop.

Top California Grape Shopping Resources

• In-store sales or coupons (55 percent)

• Printed circulars in the mail, newspaper or at grocery store (54 percent)

• Emailed ads, offers or deals from grocery store (27 percent)

• Social media (27 percent)

• Websites (27 percent)

• Mobile phone apps (26 percent)

Source: California Table Grape Commission