Seven Ways To Propel Onion Category Sales

Originally printed in the August 2018 issue of Produce Business.

Keep in mind some key merchandising habits that appeal to consumers from varying demographics.

Onions remain a staple retail product with continued market potential for retailers who assert some key merchandising habits. Sales continue to increase, according to Steve Gill, owner of Gills Onions in Oxnard, CA. “Onions represent the third-largest fresh vegetable industry in the United States,” he says. “U.S. per capita consumption of onions translates to more than 450 semi-truck loads of onions used each day.”

A ubiquitous product used in most cuisines, onions enjoy widespread consumption. “With nearly 70 percent of consumers regularly purchasing onions throughout the year, they’re deeply rooted in America’s kitchens,” says Teri Gibson, director of marketing and customer relations for Peri & Sons Farms in Yerington, NV.

René Hardwick, director of public and industry relations for the National Onion Association, based in Greeley, CO, reports the latest figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture indicate onion consumption holding steady at around 20 pounds per capita per year.

Trends in the onion category, including sweet varieties and value-added, propel sales. “Sales are growing within the category,” says Paul Kneeland, executive director of produce, food service, floral and bakery operations for Gelson’s Markets in Santa Fe Springs, CA, with 26 stores. “Sweet onion sales are up; green onions are also up; chopped and value-added onions are way up.”

At 130-store K-VA-T Food Stores in Abingdon, VA, onions remain a popular item. “We continue to see high demand, especially the sweet onion category,” says Keith Cox, produce category manager.

Yet, by tweaking a few crucial merchandising areas, retailers can drive even more onion sales.

1. Offer Variety

One imperative of onion merchandising is offering variety, and retailers are encouraged to link usage to what they offer. “Unlike an apple, banana or grapes, no one buys an onion for a snack while driving home,” says Derrell Kelso, president of Onions Etc. in Stockton, CA. “Onions are used only when cooking at home.”

Kelso recommends promoting variety based on usage. “Yellows are for slow -cooking, BBQ, casseroles, steaks and fish,” he says. “They appeal to all ethnic groups, from Pacific Rim to European to Indian foods. Reds and sweet yellows are great for salads, sandwiches, Hispanic foods, picnics, hamburgers, salsa and relishes. White onions particularly appeal to Hispanic consumers.”

Because different varieties of onions are used in multiple recipes, Hardwick suggests grocers carry all varieties of onions. “Onions are produced and sold year-round, and certainly they are consumed all year long,” she says. “Onions enjoy the limelight as more recipes call for a mix of savory and sweet options. Yellow onions are great for caramelizing and grilling; white onions add punch to Mexican fare; red onions are just right for pickling or topping a sandwich.”

Cox agrees on the importance of core variety. “All stores should have red, white, yellow-cooking, sweet and fresh green onions,” he says.

2. Highlight Sweets

One of the biggest boosts to the onion category in past decades has been the advent of the sweet onion. “We see the onion category expanding, especially on the sweet onion side due to versatility,” says Delbert Bland, owner of Bland Farms in Glennville, GA. “Consumers can do many more things with a sweet onion, even eat it raw, so it opens up a lot of different areas where they normally wouldn’t use an onion.”

Marketers recommend offering sweet onions year-round. “Sweet onions are a consumer-preferred onion variety,” says John Shuman, president and chief executive for Shuman Produce in Reidsville, GA. “Shuman Produce offers a year-round sweet onion program of consistent varieties, including Vidalia and Peru, so retailers can build category consistency and consumer confidence.”

Michael Blume, who is in sales with Keystone Fruit Marketing in Greencastle, PA, agrees on the upsurge of sweet onion popularity and the need for year-round availability. “Keystone handles Vidalias from mid-April to mid-August, Walla Walla Sweets from mid-June through mid-August, and Peru and Mexico sweet onions from early August through late April,” he says.

According to Bob Stafford, manager of the Vidalia Onion Committee in Vidalia, GA, the Vidalia season starts harvest in the middle of April and continues through June. “We store about half our crop so we can sell through Labor Day,” he says.

A crucial aspect of promoting sweet onions is to ensure customers know they’re there. “When it’s Vidalia season, stores should have an attractive sign and put them on ad,” says Bland. “Stores can use Vidalias to actually attract random customers. If you have Vidalia sweet onions and don’t put up a sign letting shoppers know the Vidalias are there, then you’re not going to get the lift in sales.”

Bland notes a few chains they work with do an extremely good job of reaching out via social media. “They use social media posts to attract shopper attention and bring them into the stores,” he says.

Retailers can capitalize on popular varieties and marketing support by grower groups through signage and ads highlighting specific names. “Customers ask for Vidalias by name, so we push the name strongly in our ads,” says Stafford.

Gelson’s customers even reach back to the store. “We carry Maui onions and get customer calls on them all the time about how good they are,” says Kneeland.

3. Be Adaptable with Displays

Since onions are one of the top five tonnage SKUs in the store, Kelso of Onions Etc. recommends building a big display. “Combined colors should be the largest or as large as any display in your store,” he says. “It should be the last SKU they buy, too, so they can match ingredients with the onions needed. For example, if a consumer buys a lot of fruit, they will buy red onions. If they buy potatoes, garlic, squash, they will buy yellow onions. A consumer who buys avocados and cilantro will buy white onions.”

However, seasonal factors should cause some retailers to deviate from typical onion space. “The time of year can make a difference as to space,” says K-VA-T’s Cox. “We need two to three times the space when the first-of-the-season Vidalia onions start.”

Stafford encourages retailers to give more space during Vidalia season. “Our popularity with consumers warrants retail giving some extra promotion during Vidalia season,” he says. “We encourage retailers to have good signage over the bins, advertising Vidalia onions. Our branding means a lot, and retailers should look to capitalize on it.”

Secondary displays and other packaging options offer additional purchase potential. Shuman recommends both a bulk offering and bag offering. “During Vidalia season, our five-pound bags are by far our most popular bag offering,” he says.

Cox suggests using secondary displays as well as offering tote bags for loose onions for a higher ticket ring. “Bag potatoes, tomatoes and avocados are popular tie-ins,” he says.

Shuman Produce provides an innovative high-graphic secondary display bin. “The small design and colorful graphics make it perfect for featuring our RealSweet brand Vidalia onions in secondary locations in other areas of the store,” says Shuman. “Items such as sausage, beef, chicken and pork are often used in recipes with Vidalia sweet onions. Place our secondary display in the meat department next to any of these items.”

4. Don’t Forget Freshness

Another crucial component of a good onion display, especially for sweets, is freshness and appearance. “Though sweet onions will last, our guideline has been to build the display so it’s sold through in two to three days,” says Keystone’s Blume. “You want to keep the display looking fresh and full at all times.”

Since Vidalia onions have a higher sugar content, explains Stafford, they need to be handled more carefully to prevent bruising. “Make sure to rotate and change out the product to ensure fresh displays,” he says. “We encourage merchandisers to keep the bins fresh and full.”

Displays also should be kept tidy and well-marked for optimal look. “Multiple varieties must be displayed with clear divisions and descriptions,” says Gibson of Peri & Sons. “We suggest retailers use red and white onions to separate the various varieties of yellow onions — whether Spanish, mild or sweet. When true sweet onions are placed directly next to conventional yellow onions it’s confusing for consumers, and an opportunity to educate and engage is lost.”

5. Step Up Merchandising

Gibson says with some creativity and planning it’s possible to shake up this produce staple. “We’re bringing a big splash of color and fun to the onion section this summer with Peri & Sons Farms’ Sweet BBQ Bloomer,” she says. “It’s a delicious, low-fat alternative to the traditional deep-fried blooming onion. Our colossal-size sweet onions can’t be missed and make a stand-out stackable DRC display when filled with colorful grab-and-go bags that include a spice packet and recipe.”

Cross merchandising provides ample opportunity for suggestive selling. “Consumers in today’s market are pressed for time,” says Shuman. “They crave ease and convenience without having to sacrifice quality of ingredients or nutrition. Cross promotions and IRC campaigns featuring two or more items in the produce department are popular ways to drive category sales, create convenience and provide savings for customers.”

Since onions are a must-have item, Gibson says a retailer can use onions’ popularity to boost sales of other items inside and outside of the produce aisle. “In addition to potatoes, onions can be paired with party dip ingredients, stuffing mixings, seasonal side dishes and tailgate fixings, and at the meat counter,” she says. “There’s plenty of opportunity.”

Gill of Gills Onions notes the importance of occasion-based cross merchandising. “This technique during events such as Super Bowl or a big holiday helps shoppers find what they need immediately when they walk into a store,” he says.

According to K-VA-T’s Cox, Cinco de Mayo is a great example of holiday promotion. “Stores can display onions, avocados, limes, and other products used in holiday cooking,” he says.

Summer cooking promises ample reward. “Promoting sweet onions with different items on the grill is always successful,” says Blume. “Promoting with salad items also works well.”

During the summer months, Vidalia growers recommend cross-promoting with other Georgia grown products. “Georgia also grows watermelon, blueberries, peaches and sweet potatoes,” says Stafford. “These are all great items to cross-merchandise with onions. We encourage a Georgia Grown or local grown section highlighting Vidalias with other local or Georgia products.”

Retailers also can shake up sales with value-added options. “Gills Onions sells fresh-cut yellow and red onions in 7- and 8-ounce cups, a convenient size for most shoppers making a single meal,” says Gill. “For fresh-cut onions most chain stores allot one facing per item with three to four cups high. This includes red and yellow onions, as well as our celery/onion blend during the holidays.”

Megan Jacobsen, head of marketing for Gills Onions, recommends making it easy for consumers to cook without a significant amount of food waste. “Onions are a staple item in so many recipes families make,” she says. “With proper positioning of value-added products, you can improve the shopper experience and make cooking at home more convenient for them.”

6. Connect with Consumers

Even something as predictable as onions become more interesting as growers and marketers link to consumers. “Consumers support brands they feel a connection to,” says Gibson of Peri & Sons. “We’re providing that connection in several ways, including easy QR code access to step-by-step preparation and cooking tips, a fast-and-fun video tutorial and a delicious array of low-fat, dipping-sauce recipes. During the promotional period, consumers can enter to win a popular portable gas grill, too.”

Jacobsen reminds stores that Millennials are changing the way business is done. “They are health-conscious and price-sensitive,” she says. “The story of where their food comes from and how it is grown, as well as it proving to be a high-quality product, is more important than which particular variety they are adding into their recipe.”

And, as more young people venture into the kitchen, Hardwick of the National Onion Association notes, they’re trying out trends with onions. “We encourage grocers to highlight trends by posting recipes and nutritional facts near their onion bins,” she says.

Retail can capitalize on marketing done by the onion organizations or individual growers. “Our Vidalia Onion Committee puts a strong message out there in the marketplace, so retailers can really take advantage of it,” says Stafford. “Our bigger growers also spend a lot of money advertising Vidalia onions.”

Peri & Sons Farms provides free seasonal recipes using a variety of onions (white, red, sweet and yellow). “These are new, easy and fun ways matching up to lifestyle changes throughout the year,” says Gibson. “We also promote onions as a part of a healthy, vegetable rich diet.”

7. Pump Up Health Aspects

For health-conscious customers, retailers may wish to highlight the overlooked health benefits of onions. “Onions are extremely healthy, and I don’t think we promote that enough,” says Bland of Bland Farms. “It is a healthy way to add flavor without adding fat.”

The highly underrated onion can work miracles in a meal, agrees Gibson. “It has incredible healthful properties that are often overlooked,” she says. “Onions are fat-free and cholesterol-free, low in sodium, high in vitamin C and a good source of fiber. Organosulfur and other compounds in onions help increase circulation, lower blood pressure and prevent blood clotting. They also detoxify the body and skin and fight the free radicals that can cause cell destruction and disease. Onions also contain generous amounts of a flavonoid called quercetin, a potent antioxidant with anti-allergy, antiviral and antihistamine properties. Studies show it may also protect against cataracts, cardiovascular disease and cancer.”

Gibson notes this is the kind of health-based information consumers seek out. “It can be shared through in-store signage, rack cards and nutritionists,” she says. “For our part, we provide this information on packaging, POS materials, QR codes and our website.”

Shuman Produce uses consumer research and conducts industry reports to stay current. “This includes the latest developments in health trends and benefits,” says Shuman. “We always look for new opportunities to share our findings with retail partners. One way we achieve this is to list health benefits on our packaging and display units to boost awareness in stores.”

Onions are so packed with nutrients, Hardwick reports the National Onion Association likes calling them ‘Nature’s Ninja.’ “Educating consumers about the health aspects is an ongoing campaign and one I’m sure will be a focus as consumers continue to be concerned about the value of certain foods for their ongoing health,” she says.

Targeting Kids

Looking beyond onion rings to build young consumers.
Though much marketing attention is spent on Millennials these days, onion growers and marketers urge retailers not to overlook the next generation of consumers. “Kids are your future consumers and breadwinners of the family,” says Delbert Bland, owner of Bland Farms in Glennville, GA.

Though onions may not seem to fit well with a child’s palate, Michael Blume, sales with Keystone Fruit Marketing in Greencastle, PA, asserts any produce item is a good idea to promote to kids regardless of what it is. “Put onions on salads or in sandwiches or on burgers,” he says. “The sweet onion has an advantage in being introduced to kids because of its taste.”

Teri Gibson, director of marketing and customer relations for Peri & Sons Farms in Yerington, NV, recommends including small amounts of chopped or minced onion, especially very mild or sweet onions, in a family’s everyday meals, without much fanfare. “The sugar content in sweet onions makes them the perfect ‘starter’ onion for kids,” she says. “We recently grilled a couple of Sweet BBQ Bloomer onions and served them appetizer-style with an array of dipping sauces. The kids at the table ate them up without reservation.”

Onions can be sautéed, sweated, minced, puréed, and added to almost anything without much notice explains René Hardwick, director of public and industry relations for the National Onion Association, based in Greeley, CO. “They enhance the flavor of foods immensely,” she says. “There are ways to get onions into your kids’ diet, including chocolate cake. Onions have natural sugar content that adds to natural flavors. Our Onions USA website has a variety of recipes stores can use.” Online resources present a tremendous tool for retailers to use in reaching parents. “There are some fabulous recipes on Pinterest and all throughout the internet on ways to incorporate onions into your meals,” says Megan Jacobsen, marketing manager for Gills Onions in Oxnard, CA. “The key for children is to be hands on. Involving children in the kitchen is incredibly important in developing healthy eating habits, as well as honing in on their cooking skills,” she says.

Onion Pitfalls

Growers and marketers share some key pitfalls to avoid in onion merchandising.

Make Sure You’re Getting What You Paid For: One big concern for buyers according to Michael Blume, sales with Keystone Fruit Marketing in Greencastle, PA, is if you’ve really purchased sweet onions. “Be sure they’re truly sweet onions,” he says. “Unfortunately, some shippers will put hot onions into a carton, call it a sweet onion and sell it. We must all take steps to ensure the consumer has a true eating experience with a sweet onion. If consumers buy a hot onion marketed as a sweet onion, they won’t come back.”

Don’t Mislead the Consumer By Mistake: Delbert Bland, owner of Bland Farms in Glennville, GA, mentions one of the biggest hindrances to onion sales is misleading the customer at point of sale and marketing a sweet onion when it’s really not sweet. “This is one of the most detrimental things you can do,” he says. “Make sure your onions are clearly marked and shoppers know what they’re buying.”

Use Signage More Effectively: Signage can be an even more influential sales tool, relates Teri Gibson, director of marketing and customer relations for Peri & Sons Farms in Yerington, NV. “It’s often rare to see clear, accurate, informational signage in the produce department,” she says. “Giving consumers information about the item — above and beyond the name — would go a long way toward increased understanding and usage of the item.”

Make Sure Signs Keep Up with Displays: Bland also warns produce department personnel to pay attention to signage when changing displays or product. “Store departments need to be careful floor staff is changing the signage when they change display or variety,” he says.

Constantly Check Quality: Paul Kneeland, executive director of produce, foodservice, floral and bakery operations for Gelson’s Markets in Santa Fe Springs, CA, stresses the importance of a fresh, quality display. “Especially during the summer you need to watch for blowouts — they will cause fruit flies,” he says.