Retailers should tap into the early season excitement to kick off sales.
Originally printed in the March 2023 issue of Produce Business.
Say the name ‘Vidalia’ and for many shoppers, there’s no need to add the word ‘onion.’
Named for Vidalia, GA, this large, sweet hybrid Granex yellow onion with its distinctive flattened shape was first cultivated in the 1930s when a Georgia farmer discovered his low sulfur soil made the onions mild-tasting rather than hot. This new onion had a slow start. However, a major leap forward in its popularity happened with a little retail help. The Piggly Wiggly supermarket, headquartered in Vidalia, recognized the onion’s potential back in the 1960s and put it on their produce shelf.
Fast forward to 1986, when Georgia’s state legislature officially trademarked the name Vidalia onion. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) marketing order defining Vidalia onions as grown in a specific region in south Georgia took effect three years later. Today, according to the Georgia Department of Agriculture (GDA), some 60 growers hand-cultivate Vidalia onions, and this has grown to represent some 40% of U.S. sweet onion sales.
“Shoppers recognize the name Vidalia,” says Marc Goldman, produce director at Morton Williams Supermarkets, a 16-store chain based in Bronx, NY. “We’ll advertise the Vidalias by name and the others available through the year as sweet onions.”
- PLAN FOR THE 2023 CROP
Each season, the GDA, in concert with the University of Georgia and Vidalia onion growers, determines and then publicly announces the crop’s first official packing date. This consensus on ship date, which is usually mid to late April, helps to manage the quality of the brand as a premium onion.
Over Christmas, record-low temperatures swept through much of the United States, including southeast Georgia. “We experienced multiple nights in the mid to high teens,” says John Shuman, president, and CEO of Shuman Farms Inc., in Reidsville, GA. “After giving the crop time to recover over the past few weeks, we do see some reduction in plant population across the industry.”
But, he adds, the crop is “now turning the corner and appears to be growing as expected. With good growing conditions going forward, we are optimistic that we will have a near normal crop.”
Any lingering effect of the winter freeze won’t affect fresh sales and retail promotional opportunities, according to Delbert Bland, president and owner of Bland Farms LLC, in Glennville, GA. “If anything, we might not run as long out of storage in the summer. Typically, we have Vidalias until Labor Day.”
The highest regional consumption and sales of Vidalia onions are in New England, the Southeast, Mid-Atlantic and Midwestern states, respectively.
“There’s no doubt that proximity to market makes a difference in speed to market as well as managing freight rates, which continue to put pressure on grower returns and consumer pricing,” says Steven Shuman, general manager and vice president of sales for G&R Farms, in Glennville, GA.
- OFFER AN ORGANIC SKU
Organics have been a steady part of the Vidalia onion production, according to Cliff Riner, chairman of the Vidalia Onion Committee (VOC), in Vidalia, GA, which administers the federal marketing order. Riner also is the vice president of ag production and grower relations at G&R Farms, which has continued to expand its sweet onion organic acreage yearly. “The growers are committed to offering organic product to the consumer.”
For example, an additional 15 to 20 acres of farmland will be certified organic by 2024 for the production of Vidalia onions by Collins Family Farms, a division of Vidalia Sweet Produce LLC, in Cobbtown, GA.
“We ship about two pallets of organic per week in season, so it’s a small percentage. But we feel it’s important to increase organic Vidalia onion production to meet growing consumer demand,” says John Strickland, Collins Family Farms’ vice president of marketing and sales.
Shuman Farms also has a strong organic Vidalia onion offering, adds Shuman. “We have both bags and bulk to help our retailer partners capitalize on this growing category.”
- REALIZE SIZE & PACK MATTER
The best-selling sizes of Vidalia onions are big, both jumbo and colossal.
“Usually 70% of what we sell are jumbos or bigger, and 30% are mediums,” says Vidalia Sweet Produce’s Strickland. “About 60% to 70% of our onions are sold bulk and 30% to 40% bagged, with most retailers carrying two SKUs, both bulk and bagged.”
Consumers are especially looking for a bagged product in the wake of the pandemic, according to Kevin Hendrix, vice president of Hendrix Produce Inc., in Metter, GA. “Two-, 3- and 5-pound bags are popular.”
- BUILD SWEET-SELLING DISPLAYS
Vidalia onions are a spring-time offering at Freshfields Farm in Orlando, FL, which operates a second location in Jacksonville. “We’ll sign the Vidalias by name,” says Earl McGrath, produce director.
Because sweet onions yield over 30% of onion category sales, emphasis should be placed on allocating 25% to 35% of space planning to sweet onions, recommends G&R Farms’ Shuman. “Consumers know Vidalia onions are the premium sweet onion of the season, know it by name and are excited when the season starts, so it’s important to leverage merchandising and signage to take advantage of early season excitement.”
Shuman recommends displaying Vidalia onions on the endcap for six weeks to build repeat purchases leading into the summer. Onions bought by the bag will likely be purchased every other week, he says.
“Today’s shopper is back to one stock-up trip, plus multiple fill-in trips per week. With Vidalia season starting mid-April, six weeks takes you through Memorial Day, as consumers get into the swing of summer grilling season and the habit of summer cooking, which is a shift in the style and type of food cooked, and includes more sweet onions,” he says.
“After Memorial Day, move the focus on alternating bag and bulk promotions within your regular set. To accommodate smaller footprints, stores can utilize quarter or half bins or secondary displays,” he adds.
Vidalia Sweet Produce will debut its updated, high-graphic 40-pound display boxes this season.
“We’ve moved from a two-color to five- to six-color box that shows the fields where the onions grow. The colors are eye-catching, and the boxes also have a QR code so customers can learn more,” Strickland says. “We have one retailer that uses about 20 of these boxes each year to build a big front-row center display when the season starts. Our bags also match the boxes.”
Showcase the grower profiles in the store, suggests Lisa Fetterhoff, director of operators for Greencastle, PA-based Keystone Fruit Marketing, which has represented Cowart Farms, in Lyons, GA, for over a decade. “Consumers are very into grower profiles in recent years. Therefore, give them information about the people who grow the onions they are about to purchase and eat.”
- CREATIVELY CROSS-MERCHANDISE
The quickest and easiest way to drive Vidalia onion and overall produce department basket size is with cross-merchandising, according to Shuman Farms’ Shuman. Consumer consumption research the company has conducted over the years reveals the average consumer eats 1.5 pounds of sweet onions annually and two-thirds of sweet onion consumption occurs during dinner time.
The top three uses for sweet onions are with salads, ethnic dishes and beef. Beyond this, when consumers have Vidalia onions in their basket, they are six times more likely to purchase peppers, five times more likely to purchase mushrooms and squash, four times more likely to purchase potatoes and tomatoes, and three times more likely to purchase fresh beef.
“We have also noticed that comfort foods with a healthy twist are a huge trending food topic for 2023. The health benefits of Vidalia onions and their versatility of flavor make them the perfect item for any classic dish that needs a little lightened up,” he says.
This season, Bland Farms will launch a spring promotion with country music artist, Billy Currington and Angus beef.
“We’ll have Currington’s picture on bags and some of his recipes on the pack and online,” says Bland.
Anecdotally, adds G&R Farms’ Shuman, “today’s Millennial consumers might have avocado in their pantry, but not an onion. We must continue to understand new ways to reach and inspire younger consumers both through digital marketing and trending food content. That may be through video recipes and more globally-inspired dishes as well as recipes that are easy to prepare, have limited ingredients and are a good value.”
- PROMOTE BY THE VIDALIA BRAND
Vidalia onions were the pioneers in establishing the sweet onion category. More recently, Nielsen data has shown Vidalias are ‘America’s Favorite Sweet Onion,’ according to the VOC, therefore, retailers can maximize sales promoting by brand name. Seasonal excitement, plus premium branding, can keep Vidalias moving in a challenging economy.
“We work with each retail partner to establish the best program for that retailer’s goals and customers. That includes display bins and signage as required. We also offer our cause marketing campaign, Growing America’s Farmers, which raises funds based on total sales that are donated back to the state FFA programs in that retailer’s state to support students pursuing careers in production agriculture,” says G&R Farms’ Shuman. New this year, G&R Farms is partnering with the American Cornhole Organization for the summer grilling and fall tailgating months.
Shuman Farms will again offer its retailer partners Feeding America Vidalia onion bags in June. The company’s philanthropic arm, the Healthy Family Project, will run several Produce for Kids retail campaigns in the spring with retailers such as Publix, Military Produce Group, Harps Food Stores, Town & Country and other banners in the AWG Springfield division.
Finally, the 2023 VOC campaign will be centered around a ‘Sweet Moments with Vidalia Onions’ theme.
“Given the unique sweet flavor of Vidalia onions, our campaign aims to connect that with the fond memories we often share with loved ones when preparing meals together, whether that’s for holidays or milestone celebrations or in our everyday,” says the VOC’s Riner. “Retailers can leverage the campaign theme by highlighting the flavor profile of Vidalia onions as a sweet onion that is only grown in 20 South Georgia counties.”