New Varieties Transform Spring Grape Deal

Originally printed in the April 2020 issue of Produce Business.

Flavor trumps pricing and other characteristics when it comes to consumers’ buying habits.

The 2020 spring table grape season is almost here. As the Chilean harvest concludes early, vineyards in Sonora, Mexico, are poised to fill the gap from late April onward, before California’s Coachella Valley also begins supplying from mid-May. Unlike 2019’s concentrated volume, efforts are underway to balance the offer, particularly with early green varieties. Add to that the expanding number of growers converting to new varieties, and the spring window promises to be an interesting one.

Proliferation Of Choice

“Spring grapes, like grapes available at other times of the year and from other regions, are undergoing an incredible transformation with new varieties leading the industry toward more prosperity and the consumer to a superior eating experience,” says David Marguleas, chief executive of Sun World International, Palm Desert, CA.

Such is the proliferation that ‘key varieties’ might be an obsolete term now, says John Pandol, director of special projects for Pandol Brothers, Delano, CA. “The big change in the past few years is an industry that has shifted from everyone having the same varieties with similar timings to each grower having different varieties with different timings,” he comments.

Although red grapes remain dominant (notably Flame Seedless), green (a.k.a. white) grapes are gaining more interest. Pandol says the trade is realizing that the visual characteristics are irrelevant if the grapes don’t taste good. “Practices that ensure maturity, texture and freshness to delight the customer are sometimes winning over the battle for the biggest berry,” he says.

As such, growers are looking primarily for new green varieties. “There is more urgency on whites than reds,” explains Pandol. “In my circles, Early Sweet, Arra 15 (Arra Sweeties), Sheegene 21 (Ivory) and IFG Ten (Sweet Globe) are the most widely planted, but there are a lot on trial.”

This varietal shift is occurring worldwide, with dozens of new varieties offering a broad choice of color, texture, availability and flavor. “At last count, California growers produced more than 85 varieties – more than double what was grown less than ten years ago. Sonora is experiencing similar growth but with an obvious emphasis on early and mid-season varieties that fit its market window,” notes Marguleas.

Sun World will have trial volumes of new, early season selections this year. Marguleas cannot share any additional information other than to say the firm is assessing several early-ripening green, red and black seedless varieties that it anticipates will be especially well-suited to early growing regions such as Sonora and Coachella.

In terms of flavor, Pandol claims most of the new varieties are ‘neutral,’ meaning they taste like grapes. “There are small plantings of an ‘exotic’ and ‘muscat’ flavor profile, interspecific crossbreeds, and both growers and retailers are seeing how this plays out; if it will grow beyond a niche,” he says.

For consumers, this trend is delivering excellent flavor and texture, attests Gary Caloroso, regional business development director for the Giumarra Companies, Los Angeles. “Each variety offers its own unique flavor characteristics,” he says. “Some of our newer varieties include Arra Passion Fire [early red seedless] and Arra Sugar Drop [early green seedless].”

Likewise, the Oppenheimer Group (Oppy) in Coquitlam, BC, Canada, is responding to calls for innovative, exciting flavors. “The new varieties for us this year include Early Sweet and Sweet Celebration,” notes Marc Serpa, director of domestic grapes and sales manager.

The right brix level for optimum eating quality is the key to these new varieties, says Scott Rossi, director of marketing at Fresh Farms, headquartered in Nogales, AZ. “Number one is flavor, two is crispiness, and three is texture (firmness),” he affirms. “But more than anything, it is flavor that’s important. Retailers are responding really well, and sales are taking off. We’re excited about the future.”

Flavor is important considering red and green grapes fall into the produce department’s top 10 best-sellers, says Joseph Bunting, produce business director for United Supermarkets, Lubbock, TX. “Our shoppers buy with their eyes, and the quality and flavor bring them back,” says Bunting. “I think the new varieties will transform the spring grape category in the future as more become readily available.”

By seeking out new varieties, Schenectady, NY-headquartered retailer Price Chopper is improving sales. “We’re definitely taking advantage of newer varieties like Cotton Candy, Jack’s Salute, Timpson and Sweet Celebration,” says produce category manager, Joseph Budny. “Our customers have really developed a taste for those varieties. They offer a better eating experience.”

Varieties are not all that is changing. The owner of Fresh Farms, the Mexican farming family, the Molinas, has pioneered grape production more than 1,000km south of Sonora – in the state of Jalisco, from where commercial volume can now be harvested as early as mid-April.

“For the past decade, Fresh Farms has experimented with different green grape varieties across Jalisco and Sonora,” says Rossi. “We’re trying to counter the needs of U.S. consumers by growing in Jalisco. We can balance the timing of our crop too, so, if Sonora is a little later we can time a third of our Jalisco crop to come in later to fill in the gaps.”

This year from Mexico, Fresh Farms has new acreage of Sweet Globe, Cotton Candy and Candy Hearts, as well as greater volume of Candy Snap, Ivory, Sugar Crisp and Sweet Celebration. The firm thinks Jalisco could be one of the world’s unique production areas. “The climate is cooler, half the grapes we grow are under covering, and the quality will be second to none,” explains Rossi. “I think the industry will be shocked and fascinated by the quality.”

United Supermarkets, which sources from Mexico and Coachella, will closely monitor supply channels as it transitions from Mexico to California. “We’ll stay with Mexico as long as quality meets our expectations, and then move to California when we feel the timing is right,” says Bunting.

With so many grape varieties on the market, it can be difficult for retailers to choose. For Giumarra though, retailers must recognize that consumers desire choice. “There is a lot of great grape varieties, but we encourage retailers to offer consumers more choice as it relates to color, flavor, packaging, size and how they were grown – conventional, organic and Fair Trade certified,” advises Caloroso.

But while ‘the more varieties, the better’ is the conventional wisdom, Pandol says it depends on the store. “I prefer to see a limited assortment format with reds and greens only doing a good job, compared to a store with 10 SKUs of grapes of which 60% sell slow, look old and have huge shrink rates,” he says.

Pricing & Promotions

As for pricing and promotions, this season is looking more advantageous for retailers. “Having a normal start date means we won’t have a compressed crop like last year, which provides us with more opportunities for effective promotions,” points out Serpa at Oppy.

The volume, meanwhile, will help determine pricing. When Mexico begins, usually prices are higher since typically supplies are lower, says Bunting at United Supermarkets. “Once supplies increase enough to promote, we will push hard,” he says. “If Mexico and Coachella overlap with lots of volume, it can lead to better promotions.”

Price Chopper promotes spring grapes heavily during the season. “Around the third week of May we’ll start taking advantage of promotions,” says Budny. “We promote on shelf, and via social media, print ads and retail contests.”

Time-wise, Caloroso says Memorial Day weekend promotions should be strongly considered. Nevertheless, since the holiday falls on May 23-25 (requiring harvesting around May 13-18), Pandol notes grapes will not be “super abundant.”

“The six weekends starting May 30/31 will have all three colors, organic and conventional, neutral and exotics, with full availability and pricing that will allow retailers to confidently plan in their lower price range,” he explains.

Oppy will focus on promotions for red seedless grapes post-Memorial Day. “We will look at ramping up our marketing around May 25 to early June for red seedless grapes, with further promotions on green seedless kicking off in mid-June,” says Serpa.

The California Table Grape Commission (CTGC), Fresno, CA, encourages retailers to promote during spring to jump-start sales, promoting California as the country of origin.

“Throughout the season, consumers will be reminded to look for California grapes through one of three visual cues: the grapes from California logo, the USA flag, and/or the CA Grown logo,” notes Jeff Cardinale, CTGC’s vice president of communications. “These are included on packaging, and retailers can reinforce the origin by using the visual cues on signage and in promotional materials.”

Retailers should also contemplate promotions for U.S. Independence Day, which falls on a Saturday, although the observed holiday is Friday, July 3. “Retailers should load up their displays, so the summer snacks include grapes as folks head out to enjoy the three-day weekend,” advises Pandol. “Retailers should price grapes between $1.49 and $1.99 during this period.”

On the subject of pricing, Cardinale quotes a recent study indicating that for 92% of primary shoppers (those aged 25-73 who are buying grapes equally frequently), California grapes are preferred more than imported grapes when both are priced the same.

“New research [TRUE Global Intelligence, U.S. Attitude and Usage Tracking Study, 2019] reinforces what retailers and shoppers have known for years: when it comes to grapes, consumers love California grapes,” says Cardinale. “Even when California grapes are priced higher than imports, 73% of primary shoppers still prefer to go with California grapes.”

Depending on a retailer’s goals, Giumarra encourages demos, bins and/or point-of-sale signage to communicate the taste, versatility and nutritional benefits of grapes. “By utilizing in-store demos, signage and bins, retailers will see a lift to their sales,” attests Caloroso.

Considering those who purchase fresh grapes account for the majority of those eating the fruit, Cardinale says advertising and promotions during the season are essential to remind shoppers. “Nothing is more inviting to consumers once they reach the store than a big, beautiful, multi-variety, multi-color display of California grapes,” he adds.

When it comes to displays, Pandol asserts big displays are fine, but cautions against having a display bigger than the store can maintain. “Remember ‘A.B.C’ or ‘Always Be Culling’,” he urges. “This is not ‘stack it high, and let it fly’; frequent touch-up is the best practice.”

To highlight the freshness, Price Chopper displays spring grapes as a focal point of the produce department, and uses refrigeration when possible. “Spring grapes represent the kick-off for the summer fruit selling season,” explains Budny, who buys from Sonora and Coachella. “It’s a fresh item coming off the imported season; from harvest they can be on shelves in under a week.”

Secondary displays work well for United Supermarkets. “We merchandise bagged grapes together, and tie in clamshell grapes,” explains Bunting. “Some displays are on refrigeration, and some are off refrigeration.”

Packaging & Demos

Packaging can influence sales too. “The new pouch bags are very colorful, and look great on displays,” notes Bunting. “Also, clamshells help protect grapes a little more than bags, and they help keep shrink lower. Packaging can be very important, especially for varieties like Cotton Candy, which cost more, and retail for more than regular grapes. The bag or clamshell can help tell the story, or at least call out that it’s a special variety.”

Clamshells for varieties, such as Sugrasixteen, (Sable Seedless), are preferred by some U.S. and Canadian retailers, says Marguleas. “It helps them tell the flavor story, and enables them to differentiate the variety’s premium price point,” he explains. “We recommend a consistent blend of bagged red, black and white seedless grapes, with specialty offerings differentiated in clamshells.”

“Nothing is more inviting to consumers once they reach the store than a big, beautiful, multi-variety, multi-color display of California grapes,”

— Jeff Cardinale, California Table Grape Commission

Pandol offers a word of warning on packaging; preferring bags with modest or no graphics. “Clamshells, either traditional or top seal, reduce the tasting of grapes,” he points out. “U.S. customers like to taste their grapes before they buy.”

For this reason, Price Chopper only offers grapes in bags. “Grapes are self-demoing; if you can try them, you will buy them,” affirms Budny. “It goes back to the quality and eating experience. A customer that is unsure can try one, and that’s the sell.”

Given the importance of tasting, educational demonstrations are recommended for newer varieties. “For some new varieties the retailers are doing in-store demos to introduce the flavor,” says Rossi of Fresh Farms. “Ultimately, this will be a big help to our industry; shoppers will get a taste, and the grapes will sell themselves.”

CTGC’s Cardinale agrees sampling is a good promotional strategy for California grapes. “It gives consumers a chance to taste the goodness of California grapes, enticing them to buy even more,” he says.

United Supermarkets also considers demos to be worthwhile noting its shoppers are looking for great quality grapes at a fair price. “Any time you can get a great quality item into the guests’ mouth, it is beneficial, because most of the time they will buy it,” says Bunting. “Our shoppers tend to like the large-sized grapes that look and eat amazingly well.”