Smashing Success With Cherries

Fresh food market in Barcelona, Spain.

Consumers can’t seem to get enough of this delicious, healthy fruit.

If there’s such a thing as a perfect fruit, cherries are a leading candidate. They are delicious, healthy and can be enjoyed in all sorts of ways. Based on their growing popularity, it seems consumers can’t get enough of them.

“Cherries have skyrocketed in sales, and they are one of the largest dollar items in the produce department on a per-SKU level,” says Roger Pepperl, marketing director for Stemilt Growers LLC, based in Wenatchee, WA.

Pepperl says Stemilt’s main California cherry varieties are Garnet, Coral, Bing, Royal Hazel, Rainier and Lapin. 

“They each have their timing and locational specifics,” he says. “In Washington State, we grow Chelan, Coral, Bing, Skeena, Sweetheart, Glory, Staccato, Rainier and Skylar Rae.”

He adds that various factors are contributing to the growing popularity of cherries, including length of season, bigger sizes and packaging options.

“The very best cherries cost more to grow, and many retailers have sought out the best to win over consumers,” says Pepperl. “Many still buy lesser-quality cherries from challenged areas to achieve low prices, but that has been a failure to most, as the consumer doesn’t come back for more. Rainier cherries continue to grow in popularity as well as the Skylar Rae, which is an extremely sweet cherry with wonderful high sugars and firmness.”

Richard Sambado of Primavera Marketing, a Linden, CA-based firm that works with growers to help provide shoppers with accurate information, says the main varieties of cherries are Brooks, Coral Champagne, Tulare’s, Bings and Rainiers.

“Our mission of providing the best-quality of cherries has never wavered,” says Sambado. “We feel strongly that firm sweet cherries appeal to everyone.”

The Crop Looks Good

Mac Riggan, director of marketing for Chelan Fresh, headquartered in Chelan, WA, says the company is looking forward to a successful cherry season.

“We’re always optimistic we’re going to have a good crop,” says Riggan. “We’ll probably be later this year because we still have snow on the ground up here, which is about the latest I can remember, but that can all change with weather. But right now, I’m expecting a later start than last year.”

When asked which cherries are most popular, Riggan gave a seemingly simple answer.

“Good cherries are popular; that sounds flippant, but [it’s true],” he says. “Last year we had a good crop of big-sized cherries and a good quality, and it really sold well at the stores. Rainiers…their popularity seems to be pretty stable; they’re expensive, so people who like Rainiers really like them.”

He adds that another cherry consumers enjoy is Chelan Fresh’s Orondo Ruby.

“It’s a great cherry; it’s a Rainier derivative,” says Riggan. “It’s like eating a Rainier cherry and Bing cherry at the same time, so you’re going to get the sweet, tart, complex flavor. It looks like a Rainier, but with a lot of red color.”

New Innovations In Packaging

One factor that could help sell more cherries is new innovations related to packaging. Pepperl says cherries are now being sold in pouch bags made of high-quality plastics featuring impressive graphics. And although clamshell-packaged cherries are growing, the next evolution will come with alternative packaging, such as top seal, flow wrap and possible cardboard or paper-based materials.

“Stemilt is on the forefront of packaging development and is working on a plastic alternative for at least 90 percent of the package,” he says.

Riggan also noted some key innovations in packaging.

“Top seal is something that a few shippers are looking at, and which replaces the lid of a clamshell, so there’s a savings of maybe anywhere between a low of 20 to 30 percent in packaging,” he says.

He also pointed out the benefits of peel and reseal, which he called a great option because it is stable and ships well.

Marketing Matters

Pepperl says the best way to market the majority of dark sweet cherries is by describing them as… well, “dark, sweet, cherries,” because they sell themselves in many ways. He also says Stemilt offers programs that are driven by geography and quality.

“We have a late-season crop in California in June called 5 River Islands, which are Lapin cherries farmed in the Delta region of California among many rivers and islands,” he says. “This is heritage land that grows incredibly large, great-quality cherries. We have a brand and a logo to promote this district to quality partnered retailers.”

The company also has a July program, which begins after the Fourth of July holiday, called Kyle’s Pick, that focuses on high-quality, high-brix, firm cherries that offer premium fruits and veggies to retailers that want the best.

“Then at the very end of the season, in mid-August, we have a program of high-elevation cherries called ‘Half Mile Closer to the Moon,’ which is about super-high-quality cherries that are farmed a half mile above sea level and are super late and extend into early September,” says Pepperl. “We farm closer to the moon and focus on the moon’s gravity in our feeding programs, and we also compost the entire project with our own custom compost. This moon program is unique and at a time when Stemilt dominates the harvest and market share of cherries being harvested.”

Health Benefits And Price

Primavera Marketing’s Sambado suggests retailers create large displays of their best, freshest, and most visually appealing cherries.

And then, of course, retailers can promote the nutrients in cherries to spread the word they fit healthy lifestyles.

“Cherries are rich in vitamin C, potassium and vitamin B,” says Sambado.

Cost is also a factor, as there is a ceiling to how much consumers will pay for cherries.

“It seems retail pricing needs to be below $5 per pound to move any considerable volume,” says Sambado. “Furthermore, if there is the scenario of a lot of fruit in a compact period of time, retail [prices] definitely need to be below $4 per pound.”

Cross-Marketing Opportunities

Cherries aren’t quite a year-round fruit, as Stemilt’s Pepperl notes they run from April to mid-June in California, early June to early September in Washington, July to early September in British Columbia and November through February in Chile.

But when it comes to cross-merchandising, summer is a key time of the year.

“Cherries are often cross-merchandised with watermelons, picnic supplies, summer beverages and such,” says Pepperl. “They are dominating in the snack food area and are popular for outdoor eating. Cherries compete with grapes, so this is the one item not to co-merchandise with.”

Jeff Manning, an Orinda, CA-based marketing expert, says dried Montmorency cherries have untapped cross-marketing potential, noting they pair well with most fresh products imaginable, from salad greens to root vegetables and potatoes and onions.

“They also complement fruits, from mainstays like apples, bananas and citrus to seasonable fruit such as peaches, pears and, of course, fresh cherries,” he says. “Again, dried fruit, and tart cherries in particular, have the potential to drive significant, incremental sales to the produce department.”

It Takes Teamwork To Sell Cherries

Keith Wilson, president of Dinuba,CA-based King Fresh Produce, which grows, packs and ships Royal, Lynn, Royal Hazel, Royal Tioga, Brooks, Champagne Coral, Tulare, Lapin, Rainier and Bing varieties grown in California, says that cherries require retailers to communicate with their suppliers to stay informed about issues such as crop size, starting dates, weather conditions and promotional time periods.

“If we have heavy volume of early cherries, retailers can capitalize on fantastic promotional opportunities,” says Wilson. “Consumers love early-season California cherries, and retailers love promoting this impulse item.”

He adds cherries are an ideal way to spark promotions during the warmer seasons.

“I think California cherries are unique to consumers since there are no fresh cherries on the market prior to California cherries,” he says. “Cherries are the first tree fruit of the spring selling season and a great item to get shoppers excited.”

Riggan says Chelan provides point-of-sale materials, including merchandiser banners to produce departments, but that getting the most out of these materials takes some efforts.

“Anytime you can build satellite displays, I think you drive incremental sales, but the challenge is that it puts pressure on your produce department to manage and update those displays,” he says. “If you can put a display of cherries up at the checkout register, I think you’re going to sell more because people are going to be staring at them as they go up the line.”

This setup also leads to sales as customers wait in line.

“If they don’t have any already, after three or four minutes of staring at them they might say, ‘Oh I’ll go ahead and buy some,’ ” says Riggan. “But you also have to maintain that display, and it’s out-of-sight, out-of-mind for most produce guys because they’re scurrying just to keep their produce filled. So it’s not as easy as it sounds.”

But hard work can definitely pay off, and it keeps customers coming back for more cherries.

Dried Cherries Year-Round

Jeff Manning is a renowned marketing expert who specializes in promoting food and beverage plans. He is best known for helping to create the iconic “Got Milk?” campaign, and is now the owner of Got Manning?, a consulting firm based in Orinda, CA.

Manning’s work with cherries involves processed cherries.

“These are basically non-perishable and sold dried, frozen, canned and as juice concentrate,” says Manning, adding that they are “by far” the fastest-growing segment.

“The vast majority of domestic dried cherries are of the Montmorency variety,” he says. “This fruit is bright red and quite tart. They are often referred to as tart or sour cherries.”

He notes that for decades, tart cherries were mostly canned and frozen for pie filling, and then things changed.

“Around 12 years ago the industry launched a marketing program — led by CMI, or the Cherry Marketing Institute — designed to transform the image of tart cherries from pie fill to super fruit,” says Manning. “The CMI campaign has been very successful, driving a growth in dried cherries.”

One of the top selling points for Montmorency cherries, according to Manning, is that they are available year-round.

“While crop sizes vary, there is always a consistent, ample supply,” he says. “For perspective, tart cherries are harvested in June and July and then very quickly processed. Michigan, Utah and Washington produce more than 90 percent of Montmorency cherries.”

According to Manning, sales for Montmorency dried cherries are growing strongly, and all signs point to a continued uptick. And customers are finding lots of uses for these tasty and healthy fruits.

“The primary consumer use of tart cherries is as a snack, alone or combined with nuts,” says Manning. “However, Montmorency tarts are used extensively in salads, on yogurt, with [ready to eat] cereal and in sauces.”            

When it comes to dried cherries, Manning says produce executives are recognizing the sales potential by marketing dried fruits in their departments 12 months a year.

“While dried cranberries probably have the widest distribution, dried tart cherries are making inroads in the produce department” says Manning. “This makes great sense since they are linked by consumers to fresh cherries, require very little shelf space, are frequently used in green and fruit salads and generate high margins. Further, unlike the cranberry industry, tart cherries are not dominated by one brand, but marketed by numerous, farm-based brands.”