SUMMER CITRUS

Originally printed in the July 2018 issue of Produce Business.

Larger availability and popularity of Mandarins help drive produce-aisle profits.

Promoting summer citrus is a key part of increasing and maintaining citrus category sales. Retailers are allocating more shelf space to summer citrus. In the past, supermarkets only carried domestic fruit in the summer. The offshore season, however, is starting sooner and ending later, providing more promotable volume.

“The biggest thing to me, it (summer citrus) was nonexistent 20 years ago,” says Mike Roberts, director of produce operations for Springdale, AR-based Harps Food Stores, which operates 87 stores in Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Kansas. “It has gotten bigger and bigger every year. Nowadays, you must go out and make sure to have adequate supplies and a good supply partner. For us, it’s a sales- and profit-driver.”

Though shipments start in early summer, summer citrus volume doesn’t normally begin to peak until July. The last half of July through Labor Day offers high volume for promotions, shippers report. During the summer months, retailers can source high-quality oranges, Mandarins, Clementines, easy-peelers, lemons and specialty fruit from Australia, Chile, South Africa, Spain and Uruguay.

“What we are seeing with our retailers, it’s becoming a bigger and bigger category all the time, especially with Mandarins,” says Linda Cunningham, president of Classic Harvest, headquartered in Paramus, NJ. “We expect it to continue to grow. The consumer doesn’t understand seasonality anymore. That puts pressure on the retailer to have the fruit when they want it.”

Because shoppers in the United States may be less informed about the quality of citrus grown outside the country during the summer months, it is important for retailers to maintain prominent merchandising positions and strong display messaging to help educate shoppers, marketers advise. Overall, retailers are experiencing a growing category, she says. “There’s a lot more interest,” adds Cunningham. “It’s becoming a bigger part of the store set in the summertime.”

POPULAR CATEGORY

Citrus is the second-highest selling fruit category in produce behind berries and has experienced tremendous growth over the past year, observes Suhanra Conradie, chief executive of Summer Citrus from South Africa (SCSA), based in Citrusdal, South Africa. In 2017, the overall fruit category experienced 4 percent dollar and volume growth. Citrus saw a 10 percent dollar growth and 9 percent volume growth during that same period, she says.

“This is being driven by Mandarins as we continue to see consumers demand this product because it meets so many consumer needs of healthy, snackability and convenience,” explains Conradie. “One other interesting call-out is that Mandarins surpassed the category staple, oranges, a few years ago and now make up the largest share of the category. Citrus is a strong performer within the produce department.”

Though imported citrus may take a back seat to other domestic summer fruits, year-round citrus consumers walk the aisles of stores, observes Sean Nelsen, senior director of produce for Oak Grove Village, IL-based Topco Associates, LLC. Navels, Cara Caras and Mandarins sell well in the summer and are popular with moms and children all summer long. “Peak flavor for Southern Hemisphere citrus is August through October,” says Nelson. “By including citrus in recipes and barbecuing tips, you will drive sales by giving the consumers confidence in the products being offered.”

Summer is a great time for picnics, barbecues, family gatherings and other fun festivities, all of which could utilize citrus, observes Monique Bienvenue, director of communications for Bee Sweet Citrus, which imports citrus from Chile and Peru from May through October and ships from Fowler, CA. “While there’s always demand for various fruits during the summer months, citrus fruits are extremely versatile, giving them an advantage in the market,” she says.

Export sales are increasing for Australian growers, who are planting more citrus to keep up with demand, says Nathan Hancock, chief executive of Citrus Australia Ltd., in Mildura, Australia. “Demand for citrus is increasing for easy-peel Mandarins and red fleshed Navel oranges (Cara Cara),” he says. “Mandarins are an easy-to-eat, healthy snacking food, suitable for busy parents to add to children’s lunch boxes and for the health-conscious and time-strapped worker.”

“Australian citrus is a premium product, and merchandisers focus on the country of origin to show the providence of the product,” says Hancock. “Many consumers identify with Australia’s unique flora and fauna, particularly animals such as koalas and kangaroos.”

MANDARIN MANIA

Mandarins are a big mover during the summer and for Chile, represent the growing region’s biggest increase in volume. In 2017, Chile’s total citrus exports to North America increased 18 percent. The largest growth was in Mandarins, which grew 43 percent from 50,844 tons to 72,858 tons, says Karen Brux, North American managing director for the Chilean Fresh Fruit Association, based in San Carlos, CA. For the first time, Chile’s total Mandarin exports are expected to surpass the 100 million ton mark, with volume jumping 32 percent from 2017.

Clementine volume is also expected to jump 27 percent, from 41,000 tons in 2017 to 51,924 tons. The majority of Chilean Mandarins and Clementines ship to North America. “We continue to see very strong growth in the summer citrus category,” says Brux. “Double-digit increases in both Clementine and Mandarin volume mean we’ll have a strong, consistent supply of easy peelers into early November. This gives retailers numerous promotion options, whether cross merchandising with other summer barbecue items, promoting Mandarins for school lunches or introducing ghoulish concepts for Halloween.”

Vero Beach, FL’s Seald Sweet International is experiencing strong movement in Mandarins. The grower-shipper-marketer is seeing yearly double-digit increases on the easy-peel varieties and an overall increase in the orange categories, says Mayda Sotomayor-Kirk, chief executive. Prices, however, for summer citrus are usually higher than winter citrus, she says. “The trends are for increases in the easy-peeler sales,” says Peter Anderson, Seald Sweet’s category manager. “The consumer-friendly 2- and 3-pound bags and a commodity that is easy to prepare, fun to eat and is healthy just lends itself to increased consumption.”

Nelson recommends using bulk and bag displays. Incorporating recipes and information about how-to-use citrus in the summer around picnics and barbecues gives shoppers confidence to buy, he says. Use citrus in ads to drive sales. Grapes, berries and other fruits will be on the front page, but consumers will buy citrus, especially Mandarins.

“Be consistent with your offering as you are appealing to your core citrus shopper who will buy each week,” he says. “Keep your category fresh with proper merchandising of the shelves. Summer consumers tend to be your most knowledgeable citrus consumers, so they know stale product when they see it. Citrus is a value in the summer as it keeps a lot better than your other summer fruits do.”

MERCHANDISING VERSATILITY

As most consumers are familiar with summer citrus varieties, it’s helpful to market the citrus according to seasonal themes, advises Bienvenue. Providing consumers with different ways to utilize summer citrus will work best in persuading them to purchase the fruit. Seasonal recipes, variety characteristics and nutritional information can go a long way in helping consumers make decisions regarding the citrus they buy. “Consumers gravitate toward bright, welcoming marketing materials that promote healthy food,” she says. “Proper merchandising is critical when it comes to keeping the category strong. Adding signage is a good way to draw customers to the citrus shelf.”

Retailers should keep in mind the versatility of citrus in beverages, salads, desserts and as a flavor enhancer to proteins, advises SCSA’s Conradie. “Citrus has a wide variety for usage, so shoppers need to be continuously reminded of the new and different ways they can be enjoying summer citrus,” she says. Conradie recommends using one’s imagination to develop effective displays. “Get creative with ‘fresh snacking’ displays,” she says. “Leverage high-impact graphics to convey a recipe suggestion. Cross merchandise with fruit dips, diffuser water bottles, grilling kits or any other consumption ideas.”

To support the citrus sales of SCSA’s retail partners and encourage consumers to look forward to the season, the organization invests in consumer marketing via social media and other venues throughout the year. “Retailers also can tout the unique quality and flavor of summer citrus on their marketing channels to increase shopper awareness and understanding,” says Conradie.

The Chilean Fresh Fruit Association plans to increase its North American market investment. In 2017, it ran its first campaign in Canada. Through offering digital coupons, sales and display promotions, in-store videos, social media campaigns and other marketing tools, the association’s merchandisers are working with retailers to find the perfect fit for the shopper demographics of each chain, explains Brux.

Allow taste and product demonstrations, advises Citrus Australia’s Hancock. Once consumers taste the fruit, they will return to buy more. Regularly check the fruit to assure there is no breakdown. Return unsold fruit to the cool room at night if possible, or display in a cool area or refrigerated shelf. “Keep the display a manageable size, as fruit is better in the cool room for as long as possible to guarantee longer shelf life for consumers,” he says. “Heap the fruit to show abundance. If presenting the fruit in rows, be consistent with the placement of the Navels (oranges) up or the stem end down (Mandarins).

PROMOTING BENEFITS

Point-of-sale materials about health benefits and the providence of the fruit assist consumers in making informed choices. “For imported citrus, it is critical retailers have a strategic marketing plan, using as many tools as possible to engage the consumer,” says Hancock. “Australian summer citrus is a niche premium product. Retailers with discerning customers will do well to engage with the Australian industry, but be quick as our fruit sells fast.”

Large displays are important, advises Harps’ Roberts. “Make sure you have big displays of it,” he says. “For us, it’s all added sales. We like to promote it with big displays. When you do oranges, add in lemons and limes. You will really get a pop in the department.” In the late summer, Harps switches gears from the large displays of stone fruit, soft fruit and berries and erects large citrus displays. “People’s taste buds change,” says Roberts. “They want something different by the end of summer.”

Though retailers are capitalizing on summer citrus’ popularity, some marketers, including Sotomayor-Kirk, think the category can be merchandised better. “We think there is more that can be done,” she says. The easy-peel varieties are the most important to retail sales, says Sotomayor-Kirk. She recommends merchandising, including hosting demos, during key summer times and back-to-school times via outdoors summer displays. “Flavor is the most important,” she says. “The shoppers will continue to come back if the internal flavor is there.”

Paying close attention to the category is critical, advises Classic Harvest’s Cunningham. “The biggest thing with summer citrus is to keep it fresh,” she says. “With shipments arriving weekly, there’s some really great quality fruit. Keep turning it over. Give it enough display space.”

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