South Africa Citrus: Great Taste At Right Time

Celebrating 20 years this season, Summer Citrus from South Africa’s quality product during an opportune period promises continued benefits for retail.

Before South Africa entered the summer citrus market almost two decades ago, Brian Gibbons, produce director at five-store Highland Park Market in Farmington, CT, said he worked little with citrus in the summer. “We had lemons, limes and some California Valencia oranges with seeds and no flavor,” he says. “We are fortunate today to be able to sell quality Navel oranges, grapefruit, clementines, and Minneolas year-round because of sourcing them from places such as South Africa.”

 South Africa has been consistent in its timing and internal product qualities for 20 years, according to Mayda Sotomayor, chief executive of Seald Sweet in Vero Beach, FL. “The exporters have a proven track record,” she says. “South Africa is producing several new varieties in mandarins and oranges that will be the future of the citrus category.”

South Africa’s advantage is its timing. “Summer Citrus from South Africa is a perfect complement because it arrives when U.S. domestic citrus is not available,” says Suhanra Conradie, chief executive of Summer Citrus from South Africa in Western Cape, South Africa. “Our eating quality is good, with sweet and delicious citrus.”

South Africa’s availability allows for a clean flow of citrus supply, points out Chris Cockle, senior director imports for Wonderful Citrus in Fort Pierce, FL. “This keeps consumers engaged in the category, with a consistent level of quality and varieties,” he says. “South Africa has robust agricultural practices with sophisticated growers to ensure food safety and traceability.”

Retailers report considerable opportunity in offering summer citrus. “We have customers shopping year-round for citrus so we must maintain availability,” says Mark Cotê, produce merchandiser for Redner’s Markets in Reading, PA, with 43 stores.

Quality Sells

South African growers focus on harvesting the best flavor profile, and delivered product quality has resulted in a first-class reputation. “The growers recognize the U.S. market must have product meeting or exceeding the quality of domestic supplies to satisfy U.S. consumer demands,” says Erin Meder, U.S. general manager for Capespan North America in Gloucester City, NJ. “With this in mind, they are very careful to achieve the proper internal quality to ensure quality product.”

South Africa always ships a pretty piece of fruit, says Cotê. “And they eat really well, too. The South Africans are on top of their game.”

Conradie explains they have worked hard to establish a unique South African brand identity for retailers. “We serve our retailers just as much as we do consumers because people actively seek citrus from South Africa once they’ve tried our fruit,” she says. “Without the distinct labeling and branding of our product, it’s a challenge for retailers or consumers to know what they’re purchasing.”

Abundant Offering

Stores can offer a comprehensive South African citrus program with variety and volume. “The program has grown and evolved over the past several years because our business model manages supply and demand in the U.S.,” says Conradie. “Summer Citrus from South Africa sells some of the finest easy peelers, Star Ruby grapefruit, and oranges, and we encourage retailers to promote the entire line of products.”

South Africa’s portfolio of citrus includes Navels, Midknights, easy peelers (clementines, mandarins), Star Ruby grapefruit and Cara Cara oranges. According to Conradie, the marketing season primarily runs May through October. “Retailers can find much more information about specific variety and season at our website and by downloading our toolkit, which shows availability by product,” she says.

Miles Fraser-Jones, director of global business development for The Tom Lange Family of Companies (Seven Seas) in Glassboro, NJ, notes the benefit of having continuous supply to maintain shelf presence and the resultant growth. “The mandarin category is by far experiencing the most growth,” he says. “Star Ruby grapefruit has experienced good growth, too.”

For the 2019 season, marketers expect volumes to remain stable or slightly lower in oranges but with continued increases in other items. Cockle estimates Navel orange shipments to the U.S. may be down slightly. “Easy-peeler volumes will increase due to more plantings maturing,” he says. “Grapefruit should be similar to last season, and Cara Caras will be down slightly due to weather issues. Valencias are looking like they will be down significantly later in the season.”

Meder reports estimated volume for 2019 indicates easy peelers will increase, while Navel volumes shipped to the U.S. and Canada are expected to be stable. “Due to weather conditions, we do expect Midknight volume to be down this year for some growers,” she says. “Over the past two years, we have seen easy-peeler category sales show double-digit growth, until this winter. We also have enjoyed increased sales for South African Star Ruby grapefruit.”

Cornerstones Of The Category

Navels and easy peelers form the backbone of the citrus category. “Navels and mandarins are always popular,” says Redner’s Cotê.

Navels should arrive in July and last through the end of September, explains Gray Vinson, commodity manager of imported citrus at Seald Sweet. “The back-to-school time period starting in August has great promotional opportunities, especially since it’s the product’s peak taste period.”

Capespan’s Meder advocates for retailers to prepare for Navel promotional volumes late July through early September.

Mandarins continue to grow as a category in the summer according to Cockle. “Our Halos in the Summer test was a massive success last season that will be broadly expanded this year,” he says. “Cara Caras are new and trending, at the expense of Navels.”

According to Fraser-Jones, South Africa has a full complement of mandarin varieties, from Clemenules to Nadorcott. “Retail should be looking out for them June through end of October,” he says. “South Africa is a very progressive supplier with regards to mandarin production with innovative, world-class growers. The month of August is when retailers should really be looking to promote, since it’s traditionally a slow sales period.”

Seald Sweet’s Vinson notes the most popular and trending mandarin varieties are the true seedless. “Also important is high color with good sizing,” he says. “And, of course, great flavor is always the key to repeat sales.”

Clementines and Murcotts are in highest supply with some Tangos also available, according to Cockle. “July through September are key promotional months,” he says. “These show more consistent color and internal characteristics, and large permanent netting structures ensure they are consistently seedless.”

Retailers also can look for newer products to add to the differentiation of the summer citrus category. “Look for Fair Trade Navels and easy peelers,” says Capespan’s Meder. “And, new production is focused on new varieties that will see an earlier harvest to meet the needs of many markets.”

Grapefruit, according to Cockle, is another good offering from South Africa coming at a time when supplies are limited in North America. Meder notes the quality and eating experience afforded by imported South African Star Ruby grapefruit is generally superior to domestic production at the same time.

Thus, grapefruit from South Africa is an item all produce retailers should be carrying, suggests Highland Park’s Gibbons. “California does not grow an abundance and their quality is not nearly as good as Florida or Texas,” he says. “If you want quality grapefruit in the summer, South Africa is the answer.”

Help in Promotion and Planning

Retailers will find valuable support in promoting summer citrus. “Marketing dollars are available from both the growers and importers to promote movement during peak time periods,” says Seald Sweet’s Sotomayor.

Summer Citrus from South Africa, growers and importers collectively offer great resources. “Through these, we can provide information and material to help retailers share the story with their customers,” says Meder.

Retailers and importers can take advantage of Summer Citrus from South Africa’s trade page — tailoring content specifically for them. “We want to be as helpful to our partners as possible, which is why you’ll find various downloadable resources and contact information to request branded materials,” says Conradie.

Individual marketers also provide support. For example, Wonderful Citrus has a dedicated team of sales professionals supported by 250 retail merchandisers across the U.S. and Canada. “They make custom solutions for our partners that drive volume and sales,” says Cockle.

 Good merchandising starts with ample planning. “We realize there is a lot of competition in the summer for shelf space,” says Meder. “We encourage retailers to discuss and plan for promotions early to maximize opportunities.”

It’s all about planning and executing, says Cockle. “South Africa has great availability and quality, but you need to plan your promotions in advance so you have the right product at the right place at the right time,” he says.