Planning A Year-Round Melon Program

Originally printed in the April 2018 issue of Produce Business.

Flavor‭, ‬visibility‭, ‬creativity and variety lay the foundation for stable sales results‭.‬

Although melons are often associated with hot summer weather, achieving the utmost success selling melons requires a well thought-out, 12-month plan. “Having melons consistently throughout the year provides consumers a location to regularly visit in the produce department to purchase melons,” says Jeff Nichol, sales executive with Dulcinea Farms/Pacific Trellis in Los Angeles. “Watermelons, cantaloupes and honeydews should be the staple fruit available all year, with retailers adding specialty varieties as they become available.”

Although watermelon sales are usually higher during the summer months, Jordan Carter, director of sales and marketing for Leger & Son, Inc. in Cordele, GA, explains there is demand year-round. “The best way to increase sales is to stock watermelon throughout the year,” she says. “Use bold and attention-grabbing bin displays during May, June, and July and fresh-cut options during back-to-school promotions. Use the whole watermelon during winter months, and spring is all about salad. Advertise watermelon with dark leafy greens for a crunchy twist.”

A year-round melon plan is feasible, according to Keith Cox, produce category manager at K-VA-T Food Stores in Abingdon, VA, with 130 stores. “Increasing sales and profits on melons depends on having a plan to transition into different growing regions as necessary,” he says.

Dan O’Connor, vice president of sales at Ayco Farms in Pompano Beach, FL, says retail has become more confident over the years with the melon category. “It’s an easy product for the consumer to affiliate with,” he says. “All of us have grown up on melons and are familiar with the eating profile. So consumers have a comfort level, making it an easy item to promote with significant success.”

Juliemar Rosado, director of retail operations and international marketing for the National Watermelon Promotion Board (NWPB) in Winter Springs, FL, points out year-round merchandising confirms the value, health, and versatility of watermelon. “These are some of the primary purchase-drivers,” she says. “During the import season, there is a push for fresh-cut, health and versatility to keep the product front of mind. Although it is understandable there will not necessarily be bins of whole watermelon to showcase, it is still a great hydrator, wonderful in seasonal recipes and a great snack on-the-go as fresh-cut or juice.”

Though melons may be an easy sell because of familiarity, O’Connor suggests to drive melon sales, retailers need to ensure consistency regardless of season, variety on display, and ad frequency. “Some retailers misstep by considering the first solution for driving sales to be ad promotion, and they hurt sales by overpromoting the item. Instead, retail should concentrate on having a simple, more-consistent display delivering a value to the customer.”

Gina Garven, director of category management for Robinson Fresh in Eden Prairie, MN, envisions a future with a melon in everyone’s cart year-round, no matter the reason for the purchase. “It’s the job of all parties within the supply chain to ensure we’ve handled the fruit correctly to give the consumer a positive eating experience,” she says. “I believe if we are able to do this, melons can become a consistent grocery item on consumer lists.”

Put Flavor First

The combination of domestic and import seasons makes melons available year round, but Wes Liefer, president and chief executive with Pura Vida Farms in Brea, CA, emphasizes what really affects sales is quality, flavor and appearance. “If quality melons are available, then a year-round program is great, but a retailer shouldn’t sacrifice taste or quality just to have a year-round program. You must make sure the quality and taste of the melon is good. A store doesn’t ever want to provide poor quality to customers.”

Sam Marrogy, produce manager at Harbortown Market, an independent gourmet grocery in Detroit, agrees flavor is the most important aspect of melon sales. “You want them to be sweet,” he says. “The first question customers ask is, if it’s sweet. They don’t care as much about color as long as it’s sweet.”

Retail is encouraged to focus on taste more than shelf life. “One of the biggest problems in the melon industry is the trade is being abused by having immature fruit on the stands,” says Don Smith, president of Turlock Fruit in Interlock, CA. “Chains want immature fruit because they want it to hold. But if stores want to increase sales and volume, the only way they’ll get it is to have a good-tasting melon. That leads to repeat sales as well.”

Carter notes with regard to sourcing, retailers should take into account peak production areas and times. “This is essential to both flavor and price,” she says.

Eating quality is something to consider, especially during seasonal transition times. “Buyers must be aware not only of the appearance and external quality but also the internal eating quality,” says Liefer. “Maintain consciousness of freshness, quality, sugar and flavor during these transition times. If you’re unsure, ask your shipper for a sample.”

Cox of K-VA-T notes the time between the end of the U.S. season and moving to imports can be challenging. “Sometimes the size of displays needs to be reduced,” he says. “You want to try to make it as seamless as possible for consumers and stores.”

However, at times when there just isn’t any good product available, Liefer recommends taking melons out of the mix. “Stores shouldn’t have melons on the shelf just to have melons on the shelf if they can’t ensure the quality and flavor,” he says. “Stay current on the situation and put them back in as soon as good quality is available.”

Stores with confidence in their melon quality should demonstrate it to customers. O’Connor recommends always having a piece of fruit cut, wrapped and labeled: For Display Only. “Cut display fruit is the ultimate way to overcome consumer questions about the quality and flavor,” he says. “The consumer can look at it, touch it and see what the melons look like inside.”

Stores also can overcome shopper uncertainly by selling halves and quarters during the off-season. “By adding those to the actual bulk display, it will help consumers make that purchase decision,” says O’Connor. “On cantaloupe especially, it does a lot to increase lift in purchases because normally cantaloupe is not displayed in cut halves or quarters.”

Liefer encourages stores to offer samples to customers. “Letting them try flavorful melons will sell product,” he says. “You don’t necessary have to invest in someone sitting there all day offering samples, but just have employees watch — if a customer is lingering at the display, approach them and offer to cut one. Often this kind of sampling for one person turns into sampling for multiple customers and you make several sales.”

Communicate Creatively‭ ‬

Creative use of marketing programs and seasonality helps draw attention and create demand. “Produce departments can get creative with their displays during the months of July and August,” says Rosado. “This ultimately attracts the consumer to purchase watermelon.”

The NWPB’s display contest is considered a win-win for both the consumer and the retailer.

“Our Watermelon Queen in-store promotions continue to have great success at retail level,” says Rosado. “These young women are smart, educated and bring something unique to the produce department.”

For displays in the spring and summer months, Nichol recommends bringing a “vacation” feeling to consumers shopping in their local market. “Dulcinea has attempted to generate attention by offering creative additions in stores, such as umbrellas that naturally stand out to shoppers because of their height,” he says. “Because of the surge in volume and demand for fruit in the spring and summer months, this is the ideal time to increase display size and add secondary displays.”

Michael Warren, president of Central American Produce/CAPCO Farms in Pompano Beach, FL, reminds stores of the critical role of consumer education, especially in transition periods. “Be sure your customers are aware of what is new and the qualities of any item coming into season,” he says.

Focus on the delicious and nutritious aspects of watermelon, suggests Leger & Son’s Carter. “Consumers are more health-conscious than ever,” she says. “The more retailers educate consumers on the health benefits of watermelon, the more likely sales are to increase. It is a great value and is incredibly versatile.”

Rosado reports selection and health information are the two top things consumers would like to see displayed in the store with watermelon. “The NWPB has many educational tools and point-of-sale materials available for retailers,” she says.

Robinson Fresh’s Garven recommends utilizing point-of-sale materials to educate consumers on product selection, nutrition and usage ideas. “We have found emphasizing the health benefits has been especially important for converting consumers from impulse buys to planned purchasers,” she says.

Social media presents another way to offer consumers new and exciting usage ideas. Dulcinea Farms’ Nichol points to Instagram and Facebook as obvious choices where pictures and recipes can be accessed by anybody. “Bloggers are also a key contact for the spread of innovation in the use of melons,” he says. “Melons are now included in many gourmet food dishes and are being eaten in savory dishes. This fruit is making its way out of only being offered as a sweet option and is now being used creatively in a variety of dishes, soups and appetizers. Another trend coming to the forefront is online ordering, grocery shopping and food kit delivery services. These are great emerging channels to get new varieties exposed and provide usage ideas.”

Focus On Fresh-Cut

Fresh-cut is a major factor in the melon business and continues to escalate. “Fresh-cut is becoming a bigger part of the business every year,” says Turlock Fruit’s Smith. “People want convenience, they want no waste, and they really don’t care what it costs. Any retailer looking for a good melon program should definitely consider having a major cut program as well. We see stores doing this on-site and they’re setting the market on fire.”

The fresh-cut segment continues to be popular because of busy lifestyles of consumers, according to Garven. “Melons represent 43 percent of fresh-cut fruit sales, ranking it the No. 1 fresh-cut fruit item,” she says. “Last year, fresh-cut melons generated more than $1 billion in retail sales, accounting for 39 percent of total retail melon sales. Additionally, about 50 percent of fresh-cut watermelon sales occur during fall and winter months.”

Rosado explains fresh-cut watermelon eliminates a major obstacle to sales. “More than half the battle with selling watermelon is to get people to buy a whole one,” she says. “The top two purchase barriers are: they don’t know how to select it, or, they don’t know what to do with the whole watermelon so as not to waste. So, take out the guessing game.”

Marrogy agrees fresh-cut solves the dilemma for customers who don’t want a whole melon or who are looking for something quick. “Offering sliced or cut melons hits all consumer segments,” he says. “We offer sliced and cut watermelon all year long and use them in fruit mixes. Our fresh-cut melons have resulted in establishing us as a destination for this — a lot of people come to our store or department because they know they can get good mixed fruit or sliced fruit here.”

Cross merchandising whole melons with cut melons doubles the bang for the buck. O’Connor reports successful stores have a refrigerated case of fresh-cut with bulk display of melons on the sides. “This drives a lot of impulse sales because retailers don’t need to lower the price to increase lift,” he says. “With the additional frontage, it’s not about the price, it’s about the volume of the display. Wegmans particularly does a great job of this.”

Cross merchandising is always a great opportunity to showcase more than one item and the benefits observes Rosado. “Do a recipe demo or sampling event and have the items together and available for purchase right there,” she says. “The customer gets the opportunity to taste it and then the convenience of having the items at their fingertips to buy. Demos and promotions involving more than one commodity tend to always have great success and drive the sales of more than 
one product.”