Originally printed in the March 2020 issue of Produce Business.
Consumption trends keep moving in the right direction — upwards.
Onions are one of America’s favorite vegetables. Doubters need only look at the data. Specifically, per capita consumption of onions has grown more than 70% in the past few decades, from 12.2 pounds per person in 1982 to more than 20 pounds per person in 2018, according to USDA Economic Research Service statistics, as shared by the Greeley, CO-headquartered National Onion Association.
One driver is flavor. While some consumers like it hot, others do not in terms of the pungent taste of a customary cooking onion. Sweet onions have grown from a niche seasonal specialty to year-round shopping list staple. Indeed, nearly one-quarter (24.6%) of total onion category sales are comprised of sweet onions, according to Nielsen Total U.S. data for the 52 weeks ending December 28, 2019, as provided by New York-headquartered Nielsen.
Yet, it’s the onion whose name has become synonymous with sweet onion that continues as king today. Vidalia onions represent 62% of sweet onion sales in the United States and 22% of total onion sales, per the Vidalia, GA-headquartered Vidalia Onion Committee (VOC).
Vidalia onions are very important to our shoppers in the Southeast as they are a local favorite,” says Maria Brous, director of media and community relations for Publix Super Markets, a 1,239-store chain headquartered in Lakeland, FL. “The Vidalia Sweet Onion is a great tasting product, and our customers know that. They look for these sweet onions every season, which only lasts about three months from May to July.”
Here are seven ways to sell more sweet Vidalia onions this season:
1. TELL THE STORY
Cultivated for more than 80 years, and first harvested in the town of Vidalia, the Vidalia onion’s distinctive taste is derived from a combination of growing factors uniquely found within a 20-county area in southeastern Georgia.
In a nutshell, the Vidalia is an unusually sweet onion compared to others, and this is due to the low sulfur content of the soil in which it’s grown. In 1989, a Federal Marketing Order was established to protect, manage and promote the crop. A year later, the Vidalia was named Georgia’s official state vegetable. Today, this sweet onion is hand planted, harvested and cured each season by some 80 of the state’s farmers on 9,000-plus acres of land. Most importantly, while it’s possible to grow sweet onions elsewhere in the world, a Vidalia can’t be signed and sold as a Vidalia unless it’s from Georgia.
“Vidalia created the sweet onion category,” says Delbert Bland, president and owner of Bland Farms LLC, in Glennville, GA. “You can talk forever about different onions from different regions, but they don’t compare in sales, or taste or overall longevity to the Vidalia. I always like to say that what makes a Vidalia different is ‘they only make you cry when they’re gone’. Hence, when Vidalia’s are available, they own the sweet onion category.”
Vidalia season is highly anticipated by many customers at Harps Food Stores, an 81-store chain based in Springdale, AR, says Mike Roberts, director of produce operations. “We definitely see a bump in our onion sales when Vidalia onions hit the market.”
Retailers especially appreciate the strong brand recognition of Vidalia, says Mark Breimeister, sweet onion specialist for Potandon Produce LLC, in Idaho Falls, ID, and president of AAA Produce Exchange Inc., in Waterford, MI. “Retailers like to promote the name ‘Vidalia’ since the brand drives sales.”
2. STOCK FOR THE SEASON
The 2020 Vidalia crop is set to start shipping mid-April. The official pack date for Vidalia onions is set by the Georgia Department of Agriculture, in concert with growers and industry experts, to assure high quality.
“We expect 5 to 7 million 40-pound equivalents this season, with about half sold fresh and 3 to 4 million in storage,” says Bob Stafford, the VOC’s manager. “A real boost for us is Vidalias mature in the spring when people start cooking outside and grilling more. To many people, Vidalias are a sign of spring. This is a boost to fresh market sales right through to late May/early June when we transition to storage. The storage crop lets us make it past the Fourth of July and usually to Labor Day before we finish up.”
3. TAKE ADVANTAGE OF NATIONAL APPEAL
Vidalia onions can be found in most U.S. markets nationwide while in season, according to Ralph Schwartz, vice president of sales and category management and new business development at Potandon Produce. “In the past, they were mainly an East Coast item, which spread nationwide due to popularity.”
Vidalias ship to all 48 states plus Canada on a regular basis, according to Bland Farms Bland. “Logistically, it is more economical for us here in Georgia to ship to the most populated region of the country, the East Coast, which gives us an advantage over growers of West Coast onions.”
Over the past 5 to 10 years, Lauren Dees, sales marketing manager for Lake Park, GA-based Generation Farms, says she’s seen a growth in demand for Vidalia onions by West Coast retailers. “It’s a short window, since by mid-June the California and Washington state’s Walla Walla sweet onions start coming in.”
Even when West Coast retailers transition to sweet onions harvested closer to home, “East Coast retailers will continue selling Vidalias into September until the storage crop is finished,” says Mike Blume, director of sales and marketing for Keystone Fruit Marketing, in Greencastle, PA.
4. OFFER SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE
“We’ll be offering retailers conventional and organic Vidalia onions in bulk or in bags,” says John Shuman, president and chief executive of Shuman Farms, Inc., in Reidsville, GA.
Size-wise, over the past decade, jumbo and colossal Vidalia’s sell 70% versus 30% sales of medium onions, according to Generation Farms’ Dees. “Over the next three years and longer, I think that percentage will change to 60/40 as we see greater interest, especially by Millennial shoppers who like grab-and-go convenience.”
Colossal size Vidalia onions are are 4-inches in diameter, jumbo are 3 -inches and medium are 3-inches.
“Jumbos and colossal are what shoppers look for as slicers, while the best bargains are mediums. As for bags, our growers pack in 2-, 3-, 5-, 10-pounds most often,” says the VOC’s Stafford.
There are two major sales and merchandising benefits of bagged Vidalia’s over those sold loose, says Potandon and AAA Produce Exchange’s Breimeister. “One is the ability to get the correct ring at the check-out; sometimes the stickers fall off. Secondly, bags are a great platform for usage ideas.”
Smaller yet, some growers are trialing a specialty bagged baby Vidalia. These range from 2- to just under 3-inches in diameter.
“We’ve received requests for baby and pee-wee sized onions, but overall its not really taken off,” says Generation Farms Dees.
5. ADD AN ORGANIC OPTION
Currently about 10% of the acreage at Bland Farms is organic, says Bland. “The organic demand continues to increase each year from our customers, so we are accommodating that need.”
Yet, organic remains a small slice of the Vidalia onion crop.
“The organic segment is very small. We may get 1 to 2 requests for organics all season,” says Potandon’s Schwartz.
Keystone Fruit Marketing packs its organically grown Vidalias in 2- and 3-pound bags, says Blume, “to assure they are rung up correctly at the store.”
Last September, Shuman Farms announced big changes to the look, feel and sustainability of its packaging for its organic Vidalia onions.
“The use of different netting and thinner film means the plastic in our new organic consumer bags will be reduced by 38% while maintaining the structural integrity of the packaging,” says Shuman.
The revamp of its organic packaging is the beginning of an overall initiative to increase sustainability across all Shuman’s RealSweet brand products. The initiative’s goal is to reduce plastic usage, educate consumers on the recyclability of onion packaging and address shopper concerns about food waste in America. Like the rest of the company’s brand line of consumer bags, the redesigned organic packaging reduces shrink by design, allowing good airflow around the onions to keep them fresh.
6. DISPLAY EVERYWHERE
The key to driving sales of Vidalia sweet onions is to build large displays and offer hot promotional pricing at the start of the season, says Potandon and AAA Produce Exchange’s Breimeister. “This means a bigger sweet onion display within the onion section and next to salads as well as in the meat section for grilling and kabob themes. Be sure to sign displays as Vidalia. The Vidalia Onion Committee offers point-of-sale (POS) materials. Hot ad prices are, for example, 29-cents to 49-cents per pound.”
Keystone’s Blume agrees. “Sales of sweet onions drive the onion category throughout the year. Therefore, it is imperative retailers give additional space to sweet onions all year. Additional displays and/or secondary displays, especially at the start of the Vidalia season and during holidays, can always generate some additional sales.”
Indeed, much of the total tonnage of Vidalia onions is moved through retail promotions, especially around key ‘outdoor cooking’ holidays such as Memorial Day and the Fourth of July, according to Potandon’s Schwartz.
One of the favorite Vidalia merchandising methods at Harps Food Stores is the creation of a waterfall display, says Roberts. “We partner with Shuman Farms and use their awesomely designed boxes to create these types of displays. This provides automatic marketing material that grabs consumer’s attention. The waterfall or spillover display also grabs attention by looking massive.”
Take advantage of regionality in display themes.
“The locally grown sections in supermarkets are definitely a benefit for marketing Vidalia’s. It’s one more avenue to educate consumers about Vidalia onions, so we love it,” says Bland Farms Bland.
Focus on seasonality too.
“The Vidalia season starts in late April, just in time for grilling season. Based on our consumer research, we know merchandising Vidalia onions throughout the produce department is important to maximize sales. As such, we offer full-color, high-graphic secondary display bins that can be easily placed not only in the produce department but also the meat department. To maximize sales opportunities and help consumers with their meal planning needs, retailers can use secondary display units and other promotional materials throughout the store to drive that incremental item in the basket,” says Shuman Farms’ Shuman.
Borrow a phrase from the restaurant industry to promote Vidalias in store and in ads, suggests Generation Farms Dees. “That is, stress that Vidalias are only available for a short time, an LTO or limited time offer.”
No matter how or where displayed, the VOC’s Stafford stresses that sweet onions like Vidalias are more perishable than sturdier yellow cooking onions. “Handle them like eggs, so they don’t bruise. Then, make sure to keep bins and displays clean and rotated. One bad onion can spoil the whole bunch.”
7. PARTNER ON PROMOTIONS
There are several annual public and private sector spear-headed promotions for Vidalia’s, all designed to help retailers sell more of this sweet onion.
“The Georgia Grown program promotes Georgia’s agricultural products domestically and internationally,” says Matthew Kulinski, deputy director of marketing for the Georgia Department of Agriculture, in Atlanta. “While the Vidalia Onion Committee provides most in-store promotions for Vidalia onions, the Georgia Department of Agriculture (GDA) does provide the trademarked ‘Georgia Grown’ logo for retailers to use in-store.”
For the 2020 season, the VOC is continuing to expand its Sweet Life campaign.
“Through various activities, including influencer partnerships and advertisements, we are helping home cooks who aspire to add a tasteful touch to their cooking make every meal, every table and every gathering a little sweeter and more enjoyable,” says the VOC’s Chelsea Blaxton.
In addition to the GDA and VOC, growers run their own promotions with retail customers.
“We work directly with the growers on all promotional planning during the Vidalia onion season,” says Publix Super Markets’ Brous.
Starting in May, Shuman Farms will have several promotions, both in-store and online. Additionally, the company will offer its RealSweet-brand Vidalia’s in special bags in June to support Feeding America.
“In the United States, one in six children face hunger every day. We know that summer break, without school breakfasts and lunches, is a particularly vulnerable time for those in need. Through the support of our Feeding America bags, we will provide 50,000 meals to families and will continue to work with Produce for Kids to spread awareness about childhood hunger,” says Shuman.
This year, Bland Farms is partnering with Paramount Pictures and The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run for Vidalia season. For retailers, this means dynamic point-of-sale merchandising displays, high-impact themed package designs, recipe tearpads featuring SpongeBob and Krabby Patty-inspired dishes, plus national press and advertising campaigns and social media support.
“To help get retailers excited, we are running a national retailer display contest where produce managers can submit images of their creative SpongeBob/Vidalia onion in-store displays for the chance to win prizes totaling $10,000,” says Meg Robinson, marketing manager. “To get consumers involved, we have a consumer sweepstakes where consumers will have a chance to win multiple prizes including a grand prize trip to Paramount Pictures for a family of four. We will have a scavenger hunt for kids (and adults too) to find the Vidalia PLU stickers that have Gary on them. This goes with the theme of the movie where SpongeBob is trying to find his friend Gary who has been ‘snailnapped.’ When they find the Gary PLU, they post a picture to our social media pages for a chance to win weekly prizes.”
Robinson notes this promotion can help produce departments grow sales because kids are going to want the SpongeBob Vidalia onions as well as the company’s blossom sauce and batter mix, which can be cross merchandised in displays.
“With or without SpongeBob,” says Robinson, “Vidalia season is something consumers look forward to.”