Promoting Southern Fruit

Southern Fruit

A look at the best ways to market fruit from the South.

Winter is now behind us, which means consumers are flocking to their local retail grocery store to get the freshest peaches, melons, specialty berries and other southern fruit offerings that arrive with the coming of spring.

Starting in early May, southern fruit begins shipping to stores throughout the East Coast and this is the ideal time for retailers to begin planning and promoting the fruit for the months ahead.

Paul Kneeland, vice president of produce, floral, seafood and meat for Kings Food Markets, headquartered in Parsippany, NJ, says the stores start planning for southern fruit marketing in March, and try to secure the best product with the best growers early on.

“East Coast fruit for East Coast retailers is usually an easy sell, but in the end it has to taste good. There is certainly some legacy in southern fruit up and down the East Coast and people think about u-picks and canning and pies and such that normally wouldn’t be associated with West Coast fruit,” he says. “Marketing organic East Coast melons will be a good push this year and any new varietals we are always interested in trying, especially if they have a different flavor profile.”

The Offerings

Chalmers Carr, owner and operator of Titan Farms, based in Ridge Spring, SC, regularly has 5,000 acres of peaches in production, and provides 56 different varieties of peaches to retailers beginning in mid-May.

“At Titan Farms, we pick our fruit riper than others. We are able to ship to East Coast retailers quickly and efficiently because of our proximity, and therefore provide consumers with fresh peaches and better flavor,” he says. “In 2015, we will be shipping Titan Pride from June 15 to Aug. 15 in 1-layer boxes; these will be fully supported with marketing materials available to the retailer.”

Will McGehee, marketing director for the Georgia Peach Council and Pearson Farm’s Genuine Georgia Group, based in Macon, GA, says flavor is king with today’s demanding consumers, which is why staying local and delivering fast is key to keeping interest and sales on the rise.

“Southern fruit is synonymous with sweet and summertime,” he says. “Georgia peaches generally kick off in late May and are the perfect prelude into a flavor-filled summer. Draw a line from west Texas up to the Dakotas. Any market from that line to the Eastern Seaboard is the market for sweet Georgia peaches.”

The Florida Strawberry Growers Association, headquartered in Dover, FL, is touting Florida 127, a new strawberry cultivar released from the University of Florida and now marketed under the Sensation brand.

After an initial pilot program with Florida growers went well, the strawberry should be promising in 2015, thanks to its early yield, robust plant habit, and its excellent fruit size and eating quality.

Andrew Scott, vice president of marketing and business development for Nickey Gregory Company, based in both Forest Park, GA and Miami, FL, says in Georgia, more blueberry acreage was planted in 2014, while in Florida, peaches are making their way into the southern produce scene as they fill that gap between Chile and Georgia and South Carolina growing seasons.

“Blueberries are gaining in popularity as consumers learn more about their heart health benefits,” as well as the fruit’s ability to reduce cancer risk, protect the urinary tract and boost brain health, he says. “Meanwhile, Florida peach acreage continues to grow a true, tree-ripe peach.”

Ashleigh Lennon, whose family owns Fitzgerald Fruit Farms, LLC, based in Woodbury, GA, says there’s a tremendous buzz about Georgia peaches and more retailers are inquiring about upping their orders.

“Georgia peaches should be available around May 29, but in July there should be plenty of volume to supply all promotions,” she says. “The fruit has the flavor that cannot be obtained from other regions. The fruit is picked, packed and shipped within two or three days. This is unique to Georgia as other regions may hold the fruit for a week or so before shipping to the distribution center.”

Fitzgerald Fruit Farms also produces four varieties of thorn-free blackberries and 10 varieties of plums.

One trend Lennon has noticed is consumer, ready-to-eat packaging. “Be looking for fresh-cut peaches in stores under the label Woot Froot,” she says. “Retailers should keep the southern fruit in the center of the produce area with a big display and banners telling the consumer where the fruit is coming from.”

Staying Local

If the retailer does a good job of merchandising and telling the story of where the fruit is from, the consumer can connect. That’s what folks want nowadays — to feel connected to the farms that grow their fruit. In that respect McGehee says retailers need to “call out the region” more when marketing southern fruit like peaches and berries.

“That is undoubtedly where we have seen the most dynamic lift in sales. Regional brands like Indian River citrus, Plant City strawberries and Georgia peaches are trustworthy in the minds of consumers,” he says. “Whatever the fruit or veggie, highlight the growing region.”

Maria Brous, director of media relations at Publix, headquartered in Lakeland, FL, says the company believes deeply in communicating with its customers and associates about the importance of the seasonality of fruit, meaning the absolute best time for flavor. To that end, Publix has a program called “At Season’s Peak” that promotes the benefits of each fruit and its optimal flavor profile.

“As consumers, we’ve grown accustomed to year-round product availability. As a good steward, we always source locally first — meaning in one of the six states in which we operate,” says Brous. “If product isn’t available to us locally, we look across the U.S. and then abroad.”

Through the At Season’s Peak program, Publix shares information with consumers in-store, and through radio, TV and billboard advertising. Several southern-grown fruits are included: strawberries in February and March; mixed berries in June; peaches and nectarines in July and August; and honeydews and cantaloupes in August and September.

“Being able to promote product that is sourced close to home is a win for the grower, customer and Publix,” says Brous. “As a southeastern retailer, we benefit from the local relationships we formed over the decades and are proud to showcase our suppliers. As we promote At Season’s Peak, we support with ad placement. Our stores also take this opportunity to merchandise the fresh selections in our produce departments and in secondary displays.”

Additionally, Publix provides recipes and additional product information on its website.

Bill Brim, owner of Lewis Taylor Farms, operating in Tifton, GA, grows cantaloupes and watermelon on his 6,000-acre farm. He credits Kroger and its focus on locally grown produce for a rise in southern fruit sales in recent years.

“Kroger has been great to work with on the Georgia Grown program and has really been a big supporter in its stores,” he says. “I think it’s important that people buy local and help the local economy, and when an entity like Kroger makes it part of their mission, it helps everyone.”

Nickey Gregory Company’s Scott understands that less food miles from the field to distribution centers across the Southeast and up the East Coast is a huge benefit for the produce. The company is also a big supporter and member of Georgia Grown.

“It is mandatory for retailers to display Country of Origin on all of their fresh produce items,” says Scott. “Some retailers take it to another level and put down what state the produce is grown and shipped from.”

Merchandising Matters

At Kings Food Markets, Kneeland says displays are planned in early May and executed when the fruit arrives.

“Merchandising the fruit with a homegrown flair for East Coast retail — crates and peach boxes and bushels — will help enhance the image,” he says. “Keeping pie crusts and canning jars nearby will also help and demos with homemade pies and ice cream and such is always a throw back to family picnics and can create a great experience.”

Titan Farms’ Carr does his part to help his retailer partners, offering new and improved pack styles this year for its fruit, including two-pound bags with vibrant graphics and nutritional information as well as club packs, clamshells and baskets.

Carr suggests that in an effort to better market southern fruit, retailers should build larger displays and present the product early in the traffic patterns. He also believes retailers should communicate to consumers if a grower is local or family run.

“They should offer both bulk and packaged options and use signage that calls out the ‘know your farmer’ so that consumers know it is local product,” he says. “Identifying the grower and growing area is important, as is to demonstrate to the consumer you choose eastern fruit vs. California fruit. This shows you support local growers and shows you pick fruit that is fresh and better tasting and travels less miles, thus minimizing the carbon footprint.”

Additionally, Carr feels retailers should offer consumers tips on how to use peaches beyond the normal, such as with e-cookbooks, pies, smoothies, grilling, etc.

Scott suggests putting a small roller display of southern fruit near the ice cream department to boost sales.

“Put the product in front of the stores or on end caps in the produce departments,” he says. “Keep the fresh produce refrigerated, especially the tree-ripened peaches and blueberries; keep that cold chain in tact.”

McGehee says it’s a good idea to cross promote inside the department as well as outside.

“Georgia peaches are naturally fragrant … get them outside of the produce department and let the smell do the work,” he says. “Inside the department is a good place to cross-promote with other southern fruit. This will showcase seasonality of fruit and also encourage a higher basket ring of fruit.”

A Helpful Hand

The Florida Strawberry Growers Association offers retailers strawberry handouts each month to give to its customers, which offer everything from consumer tips to storage issues to innovative recipes they can try. The FSGA also offers an informational poster that can be used in stores.

“A beautiful display stimulates sales. And while ripe, red strawberries are impulse items that practically sell themselves, you can draw special attention to them by putting up attractive point-of-purchase materials, recipe tear-off pads, price cards — and most of all — by keeping bins well stocked and beautiful,” says Sue Harrell, director of marketing for the organization.

At Nickey Gregory Company, Scott says they work with retailers to discuss the changing marketplace that challenges business strategies, stretches resources, and ways to think “outside the box.”

The South Carolina Peach Council, headquartered in Columbia, SC, works with produce buyers and retailers to ensure consumers have access to South Carolina peaches and helps with promotions and marketing to increase awareness of the South Carolina peach industry.

The SCPT also offers a monthly recipe on its website and has a catalogue of great recipes featuring southern fruit available.

Lennon says the Georgia Peach Council will be happy to assist retailers with banners and bin wraps to help promote Georgia peaches. Retailers just need to contact the council for more details.

“Often times I believe the consumer does not realize how far some of the fruit travels to get to the shelf,” says Lennon. “That is the distinct advantage Georgia peaches have. The fruit is generally on the shelf within three days of harvest. Only through the retailer’s help and the continued Georgia Peach Council efforts will the consumer become more informed.”

Side Note: Marketing on Time

For retailers, it’s essential to market southern fruit on time, as doing so too late will create a stockpile they can’t handle, and doing so too early could frustrate a customer base who expects to find the product.

Chalmers Carr, owner and operator of Titan Farms, based in Ridge Spring, SC, says the farm begins packing on May 20; promotable volume will be available in early June and its peak volume will be from July 1 to Aug. 20. The season will end on September 15.

“We suggest that retailers start marketing early to whet the appetite of consumers so when the peaches hit the shelves, people are ready,” he says. “There should be a strong push early on and it should continue through the peak months of July and August.”

Andrew Scott, vice president of marketing and business development for Nickey Gregory Company, based in both Forest Park, GA and Miami, FL, says retailers should start planning by the first of March for Florida peaches and the first of April for Georgia and South Carolina peaches.

Will McGehee, marketing director for the Georgia Peach Council, headquartered in Macon, GA, says it’s vital that retailers recognize the peak of season and plan big promotions surrounding those times. For peaches, he says, that means a big push come Memorial Day.

Dr. Ryan Boyles, director of the State Climate Office of North Carolina, says that the last two weeks of February were the coldest such period on record for nearly every station across the Carolinas and Virginia, which could affect the southern strawberry market in the year ahead, resulting in later-than-expected deliveries.

That’s something that retailers need to keep a watchful eye on so that they’re not acting too soon.