Specialty citrus hits its prime in the winter.Originally printed in the January 2024 issue of Produce Business.
Whether it is a tangelo, kumquat or pummelo, each variety of specialty citrus fruit has a singular look and taste. Depending on the fruit’s characteristics, consumers can peel, zest or cook with specialty citrus — and retailers can boost sales by focusing on education and spotlighting the unique varieties.
“While shoppers are privy to consuming produce year-round, many do not realize that winter is truly labeled citrus season,” says Cassie Howard, senior director of category management and marketing at Sunkist Growers Inc., Valencia, CA. “It is when California citrus is at its peak.”
Citrus fruit sales are strong, at $5 billion for the 52 weeks ending Nov. 26, 2023, according to the Circana, Total U.S. Integrated Fresh report. Unit sales increased by 3% and volume sales went up by 2% year-over-year.
SOURCING SPECIALTY CITRUS
Specialty citrus fruits consumed here are grown in the U.S., South America and Africa. Locally grown citrus hits its prime in winter.
California clementines start in November and go through May/June, according to Gray Vinson, commodity manager, summer citrus at Seald Sweet in Vero Beach, FL. “From the Southern Hemisphere, we fill in the gap of the domestic market, which is dictated by California.”
In the summer, Seald Sweet brings in clementines from Morocco and Chile, midnight oranges from South Africa and lemons from Mexico.
Delano, CA-based Wonderful Citrus also sources from all over the world, says Dave Rooke, senior vice president of sales. “We primarily source from California, Texas and Mexico,” he adds. “That is where all of our acreage is, and where our product is grown.”
In California, the company primarily grows Halo mandarins (clementines and Murcotts), Cara Cara and Valencia oranges, and seedless lemons.
AC Foods in Dinuba, CA, grows and packs all its citrus in the Central Valley of California.
“The thing that sets us apart is the deep relationships we have cultivated with California’s best citrus growers,” says Ron Steele, vice president of citrus sales for AC Foods. “We continue to make improvements in resource conservation, carbon sequestration, and improving biodiversity with our citrus crops.”
Melissa’s Produce, Los Angeles, CA, carries two dozen citrus varieties, with most grown in California. Satsuma mandarins (Keshoes, Gold Nuggets, Neopolitans) are available through January, says Robert Schueller, director of public relations. “Ojai Pixie Tangerine is our No. 1 citrus variety for March through June. It is a very late season variety.”
REGIONAL AND OVERALL SALES
Citrus sales vary from region to region, based on climate, cultural preferences and supply.
“Trends often show that areas closer to major citrus-producing regions, such as California, Florida and Arizona, tend to have more abundant and fresher supplies, which generally leads to more steady consumption,” says Alex Jackson, vice president of sales and procurement for Frieda’s Specialty Produce in Los Alamitos, CA. “Other regions across the country show significant increases during peak winter months when winter citrus fruits are at their best.”
Seald Sweet has high sales in the heavily populated Northeast, but covers the U.S. from Texas to Maine. For Wonderful Citrus, the Southeast and Northeast regions are strong citrus markets, followed by the Plains and the Mid-South region.
“I suspect that we will see a continued strengthening of demand over the coming months,” says Anne-Marie Roerink, principal and owner of 210 Analytics, a market research firm in San Antonio, TX.
“Several citrus fruits are doing very well, including mandarins, the top seller. Mandarins are experiencing the growth trifecta at the moment, with robust unit and volume gains amid some breathing room on prices driving gains on the dollar side as well. Others with solid growth include limes and tangerines.”
Mandarin sales are $1.88 billion, tangerines $78 million and tangelos $33 million for the past year, according to Circana.
“Mandarins represent 40% of citrus sold. We have seen growth of mandarins, Halos, Cuties. It is because of the easy peel and the no seeds,” says Rooke of Wonderful Citrus.
“The clientele has definitely changed now that clementines are in the mix. Most moms like to pick up a small bag for lunch for the kids.”– Gray Vinson, Seald Sweet, Vero Beach, FL
The mandarin category includes both clementines and tangerines. “The clientele has definitely changed now that clementines are in the mix. Most moms like to pick up a small bag for lunch for the kids,” says Vinson of Seald Sweet.
Each specialty citrus variety offers something distinctive. Tangelos brim with sweetly tart juice, and grape-sized kumquats look like tiny oranges, but are eaten whole — peel and all. Finger limes, the size of a pinky finger, are called citrus caviar by chefs because of their little beads. Buddha’s Hand has long segments that look like fingers, and fragrant zest.
“Sumo Citrus is a fan favorite that we have been delivering to stores since 2011. Consumers love the fruit for its enormous size, weird looks and incredibly sweet taste,” says Steele of AC Foods.
The company also produces I’m Pink Cara Caras.
“We are known for Cocktail grapefruit, which has a lot more sweetness to it than regular grapefruit, and Meyer lemon, which has less acid and more sweetness,” says Schueller of Melissa’s.
Frieda’s offers unique options including the Tahitian pummelo and calamondin (hybrid of mandarin and kumquat).
“A recent Sunkist-commissioned study with Numerator revealed that blood oranges are preferred to be eaten as a snack by 62% of shoppers, whereas more than two-thirds of all shoppers purchase lemons for recipes,” says Howard.
“During Lunar New Year, a lot of specialty citrus is given as gifts. The Buddha’s hand, which is a citron, is given for good luck and good fortune. The kumquat is for health and prosperity,” says Schueller.
Grocery retailers can look to producers for POS materials and other types of support.
“Bee Sweet Citrus offers its customers an assortment of point-of-sale (POS) material that highlights the characteristics of different varieties,” says Monique Mueller, director of communications for Bee Sweet Citrus in Fowler, CA. “From display bins to floor decals, our marketing material can help move the citrus category by catching the attention of nearby shoppers.”
Melissa’s “Citrus as Medicine” program highlights foods high in Vitamin A and Vitamin C. The company also offers channel strips, large signage and customized signage.
“Frieda’s has created a show-stopping pouch collection that is guaranteed to entice consumers. Not only are these easy grab-n-go pouches eye-catching, bright and fun, but they also help to educate the shopper on citrus varieties they may not be familiar with,” says Jackson.
Pairing goods to match consumer needs can also drive sales.
“Wonderful Seedless Lemons can be put in different sections of the retail store. For example, you can have a header card to go with salmon in the seafood section,” says Rooke.
EDUCATION IS KEY
As far as merchandising, there are many helpful methods.
“According to a recent survey from Fusion Marketing, 70% of fruit shoppers prefer selecting their own fruit from a display bin. However, not all fruit categories are the same, and we know two-thirds of specialty orange shoppers prefer to buy blood and Cara oranges in a bag,” says Howard of Sunkist.
“We know store employees can be our biggest advocates, so we have created educational materials about Sumo Citrus to teach them about the history, fast facts and how to handle and merchandise the fruit,” says Steele of AC Foods.
To increase sales, stores can cross-merchandise healthy fruits and superfoods.
“Cross-merchandise our citrus, including fun-to-eatas Popjoys kumquats and Limequats with superfoods like Organic Mighty Gold turmeric and Organic Mahana ginger to inspire shoppers to brew up our cold-killer turmeric tea or nourishing sipping broth,” says Jackson of Frieda’s.
SPECIALTY VS. TRADITIONAL
Specialty citrus varieties are perfect for winter citrus promotions.
“There is renewed interest to eat healthy in the new year, and that ties in to a good bump in sales, as people start eating more fruits and vegetables,” says Schueller.
“Our Cara Cara navels and Royal Red oranges fit beautifully into Valentine’s Day promotions,” says Mueller of Bee Sweet Citrus. “Because all our varieties are incredibly versatile, they’d make an exceptional addition to snacks, entrees, desserts and more.
To inspire more customers to try specialty citrus, demo or package it.
“If you want to have customers choose pummelos over Ruby Red grapefruit, you would spend part of the day with a stand that has all of the information about the fruit, and hand it out and let them try it,” says Tommy Melton, produce supervisor at GE Foodland in Carrollton, TX.
“If the power of the product is on the inside, you have to show that through product packaging,” says Rooke of Wonderful Citrus.
PRICING AND INFLATION
Inflation is top of mind for consumers, suppliers and retailers — but are things looking up?
“We have found that this year, the overseas cargo shipping costs are being reduced and coming to a more manageable level. Domestic logistics pricing has definitely come down — post-pandemic, it is lower. Higher prices are back to pre-pandemic pricing,” says Vinson of Seald Sweet.
Still, promotions and discounts can encourage consumer spending on specialty citrus fruit.
“Over the past year, 39% of all citrus dollars were sold with some kind of merchandising, whether an ad in the circular, a display or discount. This was up 8.3% over year-ago levels, with promotions finally making a turnaround addressing shoppers’ quest to balance their budgets,” says Roerink of 210 Analytics.
Seald Sweet does promotions with certain retailers, says Vinson. “Customers can come in and get a coupon for $1 off and print it off in-store from a kiosk.”
“Price is most important for attracting consumers. People are willing to buy specialty fruit if the price is attractive,” says JJ Chen, purchaser and wholesale manager at Sunrise International Market in Columbus, OH.
“People are willing to buy specialty fruit if the price is attractive.”— JJ Chen, Sunrise International Market, Columbus, OH
While specialty fruit may offer value if on sale, rest assured it will always offer quality.
“Emphasize the distinct and premium qualities of the various citrus varieties to distinguish them from other fruit categories at this time of year,” says Jackson of Frieda’s.
“People are still buying specialty fruit despite higher costs, because now everyone has adjusted to the fact that prices are higher,” says Melton of GE Foodland. “If it is something that you want, you will pay the price the store is asking for it.”