A dozen ways to help increase year-round sales.
April marks the beginning of the domestic melon season, when produce departments start to transition to their spring/summer look. Although the year-round supply of melons takes some of the excitement out of the season’s first domestically grown melons, smart marketing can entice shoppers to fall in love with melons this spring.
1. Build A Better Display
There’s no doubt that well-designed displays attract customers. According to data from Robinson Fresh, Eden Prairie, MN, 85 percent of shoppers buy melons on impulse when they see them in the store.
“Consumers are drawn to larger displays, and offering promotional opportunities that might entice them to pick up a new item adds incremental sales for the retailer,” says Michael Castagnetto, vice president, produce, Robinson Fresh. “So, ensure your in-store and outside bins are fully in-stock and utilize high-graphic bins. The National Watermelon Promotion Board reports a 68 percent increase in sales in stores that use these.”
Make displays eye-catching and fun. Dulcinea Farms, a Los Angeles-based supplier of both conventionally grown melons and organic watermelons, partnered with one of its retailers to set up a watermelon destination in the produce department, complete with a Dulcinea sun umbrella that helped create a bountiful, fresh, and summery scene.
Blanton’s Market, Packwood, WA, an IGA grocery store that has been in business since 1977, pairs a smaller indoor display — the produce department and store are relatively small — with a larger display for local produce, including melons, and special items in an outdoor tent. “We aggressively promote the tent through print and social media, along with our regular ad mailer, posters in the store, Instagram photos, Facebook posts, and even Facebook Live for special tent events,” says Hal Blanton, owner.
Meanwhile, the National Watermelon Promotion Board, Winter Springs, FL, runs an annual retail display contest mid-summer that is “a win-win for both the consumer and the retailer,” says Juliemar Rosado, director, retail and international marketing. “Produce departments have the opportunity to get creative with their displays, and that in turn attracts the consumer to purchase watermelon.”
For optimal shelf life, “display melons on a dry, padded surface, stack them no higher than three layers to prevent bruising, and remove the plastic liner from display boxes,” advises Juan Carlos Blanco, operations manager at Sol Marketing Group, Pompano Beach, FL. “Rotate melons regularly throughout the display to ensure maximum freshness.”
2. Expand Beyond The Big Three
It’s no longer enough to display just cantaloupe, honeydew and watermelon. Robinson Fresh’s Castagnetto recommends no fewer than four types of melon — watermelon, cantaloupe, mini melons and honeydew — and more than that as the season progresses. “Carrying melon varieties beyond the core assortment can differentiate a retailer, attract new consumers and add color that creates interest and brings attention to the category.”
“We recommend that retailers merchandise several varieties of melons together,” says Alex Berkley, sales manager, Frieda’s Specialty Produce. “Try offering conventional melons alongside specialty melons such as seedless yellow watermelon, canary melon, Temptation melon, Crenshaw melon, Hami melon or even Santa Claus melon. Offering and promoting a wide variety of melons is the most efficient way to ensure you are able to meet the demand of any shopper.”
3. Think Smaller
Watermelon options have undergone noticeable expansion in recent years, first from seeded to seedless and then from large to small. “Mini melons consistently increase in sales year-over-year because household size is smaller and consumers are buying for one or two instead of an entire family,” notes Castagnetto, who adds the thinner rind of mini melons simplifies cutting and preparation.
Dulcinea is among several marketers of small watermelons, with its PureHeart mini-seedless watermelon. “Dulcinea is the original mini-seedless watermelon and, over the years, we have invested in building up awareness for the brand and category as a quality fruit with a consistent eating experience and, of course, recognition at point-of-sale,” says Thorsten (Thor) Rhode, senior director, marketing.
Small melons take their place alongside, but not instead of, larger melons. Wes Liefer, chief executive of Pura Vida Farms, Brea, CA, notes the trend for cantaloupe is moving bigger, toward 9-count over 12-count or 15-count. He says, “In the Eastern United States and Canada, where variety melons tend to be more expensive, smaller melons can carry a more appealing price than larger ones.”
4. Dishing Up Melon Year-Round
The winter months favor imported melons, while domestic melons dominate from spring through fall. But with 44 percent of consumers purchasing melons year-round, according to Robinson Fresh, imported and domestic melons share space in stores and on the plate.
The Sol Marketing Group, an off-shore melon distributor in North America and large grower and importer of winter melons, recently introduced new varieties that include the Honeydude, an exclusive honeydew melon with small seed cavity, sweeter taste and softer texture than the traditional honeydew, and the SOLito, a seedless mini watermelon with a sweeter taste and crunchy textured flesh.
“During the fall and winter months, watermelon demand is less elastic and consumption of whole watermelon decreases, but consumption of cut watermelon and mini watermelon increases,” observes Mike Martori, vice president, sales, Stella Farms LLC, Scottsdale, AZ.
“Customers buying watermelon in the fall and winter are typically buying watermelon on a regular basis, rather than on impulse so they are less sensitive to price or promotional activity.” He stresses the importance of quality as a driver of sales; customers who buy cut watermelon do so nearly every week.
Extend promotionals beyond the spring-summer peak for melons. “The import season is a great time to expand menu options for the consumer, particularly since watermelons lend themselves to many flavors and cuisines,” says Rosado, of the Watermelon Board. “While stores may not have bins of whole watermelon to showcase, they can market watermelon as a wonderful ingredient for seasonal recipes and a great snack on the go.”
Consumers may not notice the in-season switches from offshore to domestic and North American melons. “Quality matters more to the consumer than country of origin,” observes Liefer. “Consumers have changed a lot in the past 10 to 20 years. They used to be well-educated about the seasonality of produce, for example, California cantaloupes in the late spring into the summer, and look forward to the fruits of the seasons. But now that most melons are available year-round, the consumer doesn’t seem to care, even though the industry has tried to promote melons that are grown in the United States. Melon often is an impulse buy, so if it looks good, consumers will buy it. For domestic melons, flavor and quality peak between mid-May (15) and mid-October (15), so that’s when retailers can maximize marketing efforts on calling out quality.”
In contrast to the “off season,” melon specialists say the fruit will sell itself in the summer if priced well and is of high quality. Martori notes sales of whole watermelon peak during Memorial Day and July 4th because they are a central part of consumers’ celebration plans for those holidays. “Demand for whole watermelon in the summer is relatively elastic, so lower retail prices will have a significantly positive impact on sales. Warm temperatures will help drive sales. Also, quality is an important factor during summer months for driving repeat purchases.”
“Although we sell melons year-round, we see a huge spike during the local season due to high quality at a good price. That’s when we put a lot of effort into melon signage,” says Blanton. “Here, Hermiston watermelons and other area melons are readily recognized by local customers so we can brand them by name. For those who ask what makes those melons so special, we readily offer a taste sample as the best way to communicate quality and flavor.”
The relationship among ripeness, sugar content and shelf life is readily apparent. “Generally, domestic melons are picked vine-ripe and the shelf life of a honeydew with a lot of sugar, for example, is about three to four weeks,” says Liefer. “Melons from Central America can’t be picked at the same ripeness and sugar content because ripe melons do not hold up as well to a long shipping period. That is why some off-shore melons are less sweet and not as flavorful as their domestic counterparts.”
5. Sample And Savor
In a produce department typically stocked with mainly single-serve fruits, whole melons represent a big commitment for the shopper. Melon size creates an urgency to eat the fruit across several meals and snacks before it spoils. Because quality can be difficult to discern in a whole melon, consumers fear being stuck with a melon that is underripe or doesn’t taste good. Cutting melons to show ripeness and offering samples can ease consumer concerns.
“More than half the battle with selling whole watermelon is the hesitation if customers don’t know how to select it or what to do with it to avoid waste,” says Rosado. “The customer who buys fresh-cut watermelon may be different from the one who chooses a whole watermelon at the store. So keep bins of whole watermelons near the fresh-cuts so you can target both types of customers.”
Sol’s Bianco says sampling can help consumers with less familiar varieties. “When shoppers are presented with the opportunity to taste new or specialty varieties, they are more likely to purchase them. Sampling eliminates the risk of not knowing whether they will enjoy the product after purchase.”
Hal Blanton, of Blanton’s Market, notes, “We make sure we are in-stock, displayed well and sampling, especially when we bring in Santa Claus and other seasonal melons or varieties that look interesting to us. We lead with price, but quality of taste is important, and people will spend the money. We are not afraid to sample things out. In our experience, people will buy melons because they like them, independent of price. And when quality is good we can sell at regular retail price.”
6. Convenience Can Enhance Sales
“Consumers have come to expect convenience above all else,” says Robinson Fresh’s Castagnetto. “Mini melons and ready-cut offerings provide the convenience consumers demand, and the fresh-cut segment continues to gain popularity as an answer for the busy lifestyles of consumers today.”
After mixed fruit, watermelon is the top value-added fruit item, according to the United Fresh FreshFacts on Retail 2018 Year in Review. Both value-added watermelon and cantaloupe grew in dollar sales, pounds sold and average retail price compared to 2017.
In the experience of Derrick Jenkins, vice president, produce, Wakefern/ShopRite, Keasbey, NJ, a cut-fruit program is a game-changer in the melon category. “We have an extremely robust cut-fruit program that we are expanding all the time. Currently, we sell melons in every form and fashion – whole, cut, sliced, even in parfait cups. Our program is always growing and is extremely popular with our shoppers who are increasingly looking for affordable, convenient and quick solutions.”
Small independent stores also embrace cut fruit. Blanton says pre-cutting is a “no-brainer for melon for size, ease of use, and good eye appeal.” He suggests working with a supplier that can cut the fruit in a controlled and clean environment to reduce contamination risk.
7. Selling On Health
Robinson’s Castagnetto says emphasizing health benefits is particularly important for converting consumers from impulse buyers to planned purchasers.
Blanton’s experience is similar. “Beyond merchandising full and attractive displays, I am interested in highlighting nutrition messaging that guides customers toward nutritional benefits and better choices,” says Blanton. “People care about nutrition and are hungry for more information, particularly information that they do not already know. Let’s make melon messaging fun while showing the customer that melons taste good and are good for you.”
8. Know Your Region
While the big three varieties are popular across North America, regions demonstrate differences. For Robinson Fresh customers, cantaloupe performs best in eastern states while demand for mini watermelons is strongest in western states.
Frieda’s sees growing specialty melon sales in the Midwest, a region that typically lags behind the coasts and southern states. Pura Vida finds specialty melons such as Crenshaw and Casaba move better on the East Coast; orange flesh, Galia and Hami sell well on the West Coast; and the sweet, strongly flavored Athena cantaloupe is popular in Florida, Georgia and Carolina in June and July. Across all melon varieties, consumers prefer locally grown when they’re available.
9. Build Good Vibes With Shoppers
Taste, quality and price matter, yet melons tend to be an impulse buy during the summer. “We find consumers, including Millennials, are drawn to larger displays, and combining these with promotional opportunities might entice a consumer to pick up a new item that offers diversity of flavor profile and adds incremental sales for the retailer,” says Castagnetto. “ ‘Buy one, try one’ encourages shoppers to buy their core melon item and also take home a new varietal. Although only a small portion of overall melon sales come from new and differential varietals, they are growing in demand, especially among Millennials.”
Sol develops custom materials and promotions to meet retailers’ needs and partners with them on social media to direct shoppers to Sol’s Pinterest page and recipe collection. Carolina Garcia, marketing manager, explains, “We can customize this program with features such as special offers, display contests, social media contests, cross-promotions, and many others.”
Pura Vida encourages retailers to advertise at the beginning of the domestic melon season, when as many as seven different melons may be available at the same time. “We suggest a “melonmania” ad along with a large display that is designed for big impact,” says Liefer. “Seeing all the colors on display in a big, fresh, attractive display gives consumers the impulse to buy.”
Recipes also are popular. “In preparing for peak melon season this summer, we have a few ideas up our sleeves on how to bring our extensive recipe collection to POS in a way that is convenient for the consumer and impactful for the retailer,” says Rhode, of Dulcinea. “Think QR codes, recipe cards and tie-ins across our entire line-up.”
“During the summer months when it’s peak of season, we are constantly promoting our watermelons, cantaloupes and honeydews using an omnichannel approach that leverages our website, social media platforms and other digital resources,” says Wakefern’s Jenkins. “We’ll also create local advertising campaigns that feature the farmers we work with, plus the individual members that make up the family-owned Wakefern cooperative. Additionally, we partner with our in-store dietitians, who create recipes featuring our melons for in-store demonstrations and social media posts.”
10. Explore cross merchandising
Melons have fewer natural partners than other fruits, such as apples and pears. That opens the door to creative pairings in the produce department. “Cross merchandising always is a way to showcase more than one item and the benefits of each,” says Rosado, of the Watermelon Board. “Demonstrating a recipe, allowing the customer to taste it and having the various ingredients close by and available for purchase can be beneficial. Demos and promotions that involve more than one ingredient always have great success and showcase the versatility of the melon and other ingredients.”
Cause-related marketing can boost melon sales. Robinson Fresh markets a MelonUp! Pink Ribbon Watermelon that is positioned to positively impact the fight for a cure for breast cancer. The company’s work with retailers who offer Pink Ribbon watermelons has generated more than $1 million in donations since the start of the program.
11. Anticipate Supply
Technology allows closer monitoring of weather and its impact on growing regions, and that can help retailers to better project supply and plan pricing and promotions. A new app, Weathermelon, was created by produce professionals to allow weather tracking by growing region and commodity. “Although this has been a wet winter in the West, the weather in late winter and spring will have the greatest impact on melons,” explains David Robidoux, co-founder, Weathermelon, Irvine, CA. “We send out alerts regarding upcoming weather for the next 10 days. Say, a stretch of warm weather is in the forecast. A retailer can get a sense of when supplies might increase for a certain melon that can be advertised and priced attractively in the coming weeks.”
12. Store With Care
Sol stresses the importance of continuing the refrigeration chain to extend shelf life until the retailer is ready to put melons on display. Blanco recommends storage temperatures of 36-38°F for cantaloupe, 48-50°F for watermelon and 45-48°F for honeydew. Melons should be displayed away from produce items that release ethylene. Whole melons can remain at room temperature for up to two days before cutting or slicing. Fresh-cut melons should be consumed within three to five days of slicing.