Effectively merchandising tasty Southern treat draws shoppers.
Originally printed in the July 2021 issue of Produce Business.
Southeastern peaches are known for flavor, quality and consistency. Taken together, these attributes make for an unrivaled eating experience. Through effective merchandising and proper sourcing of peaches grown in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and other Southeastern states, retailers can increase category sales during the summer.
Southeastern peaches help keep retailers’ produce departments competitive. They can generate big sales through impulse buying, says Daniel Hulslander, produce category manager for Greer’s Market, a three-unit retailer, based in Mobile, AL.
“Customers are ready for spring and summer fresh foods coming out of the winter months. They want something sweet to eat,” Hulslander explains. “Southeast peaches are important because they boost the overall dollar per customer sale. Most shoppers only come to the store with one or two produce items on their list. If merchandised right, those shoppers will walk out with peaches as well.”
Florida harvesting begins in late March and early April, followed by Georgia and South Carolina in mid- to late May Georgia usually finishes in mid-August, with South Carolina’s ending by Labor Day. Alabama production typically starts and ends similar to Georgia. Late July sees the start of harvests in West Virginia and Pennsylvania. Harvesting typically finishes in early September.
When one thinks of summer peaches, the South comes to mind. “The Southeast is synonymous with summer stone fruit,” says Tom Beaver, director of sales and marketing for Sunny Valley International Inc., Glassboro, NJ. “For consumers up and down the Eastern Seaboard, Southeastern peaches symbolize the turn in the seasons — longer days, vacations and time spent with their families, among other things. The weather and soil conditions in the Southeast allow for the production of some of the most flavorful peaches available in the marketplace.”
For Southeastern peaches, it’s taste that sells. “Southeast peaches are an eating experience and a physical experience,” says Duke Lane III, a partner with the Genuine Georgia Group, Fort Valley, GA. “People wait all year for summertime flavor, which is our season.
“We’re not trying to sell peaches in January and February. We’re trying to sell them when they’re ripe, when flavor is at its peak and when consumers know local peaches are peaking in the summer. We are emphatic about freshness, flavor and that unique Georgia peach flavor profile that only comes out of the Southeast.”
Peaches are South Carolina’s calling card, states Hugh Weathers, South Carolina’s Commissioner of Agriculture. “Our peaches are extra-sweet, with high brix readings and outstanding flavor. Most years, we grow more peaches than any other state besides California.”
The Southeast is one of the most important production regions, he adds, because South Carolina and Georgia contribute around 23,000-25,000 acres of peaches to the industry. “While Western growers often aim for the best shipping/shelf life, here in the Southeast, we have always made flavor our main focus, selecting varieties with the highest sweetness and best flavor.”
South Carolina is known for big, juicy peaches, says Annalee Rodgers, shipping director and assistant food safety coordinator for Dixie Bell Peaches, based in Ridge Spring, SC. “We are really known for the giant red peaches that have the pretty yellow flesh. It’s one of the reasons they’re so good from the South. When you bite into them, the juice runs down your face. You can’t get enough.”
South Carolina peaches benefit from the state’s climate and soil, she explains. “We have a lot of rich red clay and dirt the peaches really thrive in. We have the perfect combination of warm temperatures, the perfect amount of rain and humidity which makes that big and juice peach grown on the Ridge of South Carolina. The sugars are just perfect. ”
Nearly all peaches grown in Georgia are sold in the wholesale fresh market, with a small percentage sold at roadside markets, according to Matthew Kulinski, Georgia Grown program manager for the Georgia Department of Agriculture. “Georgia enjoys important production and marketing advantages, primarily its proximity to Eastern markets and favorable prices because of early harvests and high-quality fruit production,” he adds.
Southeastern peaches have historically been the industry standard for flavor and seasonality, says Donna Watson, manager of industry relations for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS).
“Retailers can offer consumers a fresher peach, one that has not traveled a great distance in shipping. Florida peaches are the only domestic peaches on the market from mid-March into May. They require fewer chill hours than other domestic peaches, taking advantage of Florida’s climate.”
Florida peaches are smaller than other peaches, she adds, “making them the perfect snack size. They are sweet, juicy, delicious, and are part of a tree-ripened program.”
Peaches are gaining in sales and sold well during the pandemic. According to data from Nielsen, fresh peaches saw a 26.5% increase in sales from 2020 to 2021 for the 52-week period ending in early March. Peaches, which constitute 1.5% of a produce department’s fruit sales, are the 17th leading fruit, immediately behind pineapples, limes, blackberries and cantaloupe but ahead of mangoes, pears and grapefruit, according to Nielsen.
Keystone Fruit Marketing, based in Greencastle, PA, has been selling peaches since the early 1980s, and Mike Blume, director of sales and marketing, expects favorable demand to continue.
“Buyers seem to be anxious to have good supplies of Southern/Eastern peaches to sell this summer,” he says. “Supplies will be plentiful, but trucks could create some havoc. Advanced notice on all orders will be needed so transportation can be secured.”
In the past, peaches were judged on how big and how red they were. However, the consumer soon learned that taste is more important than a peach’s size or color, says Will McGehee, a Genuine Georgia partner.
“For us, flavor is everything,” he says. “The question is, do they eat like candy?
“Obviously, it has to be a pretty piece of fruit. But more important than anything is that ability to deliver that signature Southern flavor — that zing and that perfect amount of sugar with that acid on the back end that gives peaches that zip.”
PLAY UP LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
Logisitics is a key factor in sourcing Southeastern peaches. “Proximity to market is a huge plus,” comments Sunny Valley’s Beaver. “In most cases, our peaches are picked, packed, shipped and on a store shelf within 24 to 48 hours. Growers in other parts of the country simply can’t replicate this.”
Given that Eastern peaches are the local option from May through mid-September, he recommends retailers highlighting source-of-origin for their customers. “When retailers opt for Eastern peaches, they are committing to carrying the most flavorful stone fruit. They’re also committing to supporting the ‘local’ option for millions of consumers up and down the coast who are more interested than ever before in supporting local, family farms.”
“As consumers feel more comfortable shopping in-person, there is an immediate need to meet their demand for local through adequate supply, promotion and merchandising of Southern peaches,” says Katie Pfeiffer, director of merchandising for the South Carolina Department of Agriculture.
Peaches are an important piece of what makes the South distinct, she adds. “The consumer identifies peaches with the South and in order to grow this category, we must provide the best quality peaches to the market. It just so happens that the best are also the freshest, most favorable, and most recognizable at the consumer level: a huge opportunity for growth.”
Greer’s Markets’ Hulslander recommends retailers create large displays using the grower’s boxes or a secondary display in favorable traffic areas. Displays, including tote bags, can help capture grab-n-go sales. “The bigger the better,” he says. “If you leave peaches in the cold case in one basket, you will not get the movement you would if you had a large display out front and center where the customer can see and smell how great the peaches look. The biggest thing is trying to be the first to have them in your stores.”
While peaches are mostly packed in 25-pound volume-filled cartons, consumer two-pound bags are becoming more popular, especially with younger shoppers, notes Keystone Fruit Marketing’s Blume.
“We recommend retailers display loose and bagged peaches together, to offer the consumer a choice,” he says. “Secondary displays of loose and/or bags are a great way to generate some additional impulse sales. Displays need to be worked throughout the day, to keep them fresh and full.”
Keystone also packs 2-layer trays and some specialty packs for selected retailers.
A strong merchandising commitment is critical for the success of the Eastern stone fruit category, says Beaver. “Prominent center-store displays featuring beautiful peaches ensure impulse buys throughout the season.”
Beaver also recommends promoting peaches through special pack options. “From grab-and-go bags to tray-packs, our goal is to make sure that any retailer we partner with has every tool available to market our peaches to wide cross-section of consumers,” says Beaver.
As peaches are highly aromatic, samples are effective at attracting shoppers’ attention, recommends FDACS’ Watson. “Retailers should display peaches in prominent locations, such as an endcaps or with attractive point-of-sale signage,” she says. “As peaches ripen quickly, special attention should be made to cull-out blemished fruits from the display.”