Originally printed in the March 2019 issue of Produce Business.
The retail staple is found in spring, summer grilling, fall and winter dishes.
Americans love sweet corn, but because it’s so available, the popular vegetable easily can be taken for granted. Luckily, suppliers bring a wealth of information and data that can help retailers increase sales and profits.
Sweet corn provides shoppers a “sense of summer” and is an especially strong seller during the run-up to holidays. The states in which sweet corn is grown include Florida, Georgia, Virginia, New Jersey, New York, Colorado and California.
Sweet corn is “truly a harbinger of the summer season,” says Maroka Kawamura, program and category manager for produce and floral for the NorCal region for New Leaf Community Markets/New Seasons Market in Santa Cruz, CA. “It’s a really easy visual that it’s time to get outside and grill.” New Leaf Markets always hits what Kawamura refers to as “the big holidays:” Memorial Day through Labor Day.
“For years, sweet corn has been associated with summertime and something fun,” observes Jason Turek, partner with King Ferry, NY’s Turek Farms/Cayuga Produce, Inc. “During spring, summer, fall and winter, those are great times to promote sweet corn in soups, salsas and thinking outside the box a little.”
Sweet corn is a harbinger of the new season. “Sweet corn announces the arrival of a ‘taste of spring’ from the Sunshine State,” says Ted Wanless, chief operating officer with Belle Glade, FL-based SM Jones & Co., Inc.
“Whether in bulk or in trays, sweet corn is a complement to any meal, barbecue, event or celebration.”
The summertime association makes sweet corn a big part of many consumers’ lives. “During the spring, summer and early fall months, sweet corn becomes a staple in the produce department,” says Jimmy Carter, sales manager with Parker Farms, which is headquartered in Oak Grove, VA. “Sweet corn is a draw for the stores via effective marketing in print ads and placement in the produce department.”
Retailers value stocking it. “Sweet corn is a big part of our business plan,” says Jay Schneider, produce director for Acme Markets/SuperValu. “We will run it on a full dedicated permanent endcap starting in April until Labor Day, so it continues to be an important category for us.” Acme stores husk the corn and position it in six-count trays along with fresh corn.
“The interesting part about this is that over the years, packaged corn accounts for almost 55 percent to 60 percent of our total corn sales, showing that convenience takes precedence over price,” says Schneider.
Consumers like Florida sweet corn for a variety of reasons, says Jackie Moalli, director of the Division of Marketing and Development for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. “The extra sweet varieties bring connotations of springtime, barbecues and spending time with friends and family,” she says. “Consumers love that it is a great side to serve kids and is safely and consistently grown in the Sunshine State.”
The Sunshine Sweet Corn Farmers of Florida (SSCFF), a coordinated group of 22 sweet corn growers and 12 shippers distributing November to May, advertise and promote most of their product through the Fresh from Florida program. This year, SSCFF’s sweet corn will be promoted through retailers in 32 states and Canada. The group plans a media campaign with digital, social media and in-store components. Consumers can look for sweet corn coupons and promotions through smartphone apps and through their local retailer ads.
Sweet corn has grown considerably compared to other vegetables, explains Moalli, because of the partnership that farmers have as members of SSCFF and the Fresh from Florida program. “These programs have increased availability of Sunshine Sweet Corn to the retail segment but also have increased consumer awareness of sweet corn as an option nearly year-round,” she says.
Research supports such growth. Nielsen Fresh’s February 2019 report, Fresh Trends: Tracking the Four Trends Driving Growth Across the Fresh Section, called-out sweet corn in its “What Could Be Next” segment. “Sweet corn could be another unique option like cauliflower, with its lightly sweet flavor,” the report stated. “It’s already seen 5 percent CAGR (compound annual growth rate), similar to cauliflower’s trajectory before it took the main stage.”
Along with peaches and tomatoes, the family of Bob Sickles, the third-generation owner of Sickles Market in Little Silver, NJ, survived on sweet corn. He credits sweet corn with putting all his siblings and himself through college. “It is a favorite vegetable of mine, and I love them all,” says Sickles. Sometimes on a summer Saturday, the family business would sell 250 bushels, about 90 wholesale and the rest retail. “From June to the end of September, [sweet corn] dominated our sales, with peaches and tomatoes soon chiming in as July progressed,” he says. “Needless to say, sweet corn was and is a big part of my life.”
Sickles recommends retailers develop effective displays. “For sweet corn, you need to have good-looking fresh product and be in it to win it with big displays,” says Sickles. “There are many more recipes for corn available these days, and I think people appreciate fresh and local more than they have in the past.”
Pre-husking saves time. Experts say retailers should always sell Super Sweet varieties and tell growers to never grow non-Super Sweet varieties, with the exception of Silver Queen, a popular late-season variety.
ERECT SIZEABLE DISPLAYS
Wanless of SM Jones says retailers should consider the way they display sweet corn. “Put sweet corn in full, fresh and refrigerated displays which will produce the most movement and sales for the category.”
Bulk displays work well by giving consumers “a sense of summer feeling,” says Sean McFadden, business development for Parker Farms. Retailers should be careful to remove “old, dry corn” and make good use of bins and/or tabletops. McFadden recommends tray packing on and off the cob.
Although competition for space is intense, Turek Farms/Cayuga Produce’s Turek says retailers do merchandising sweet corn well. “Especially when it’s regional and seasonal, they really do a good job of getting it up front and placing it in front of the consumers,” he says. “With those large displays with that farm-fresh look of corn piled high, people can’t help but want to stop and peel a few ears.”
Sickles finds price always affects sales. “No matter what it is, the people who love it, and have the money and have access to great product will always want it,” he says. He recommends cross-promoting with compound butters, succotash recipes and the accompanying ingredients, and tomatoes.
“Sweet corn is always going to sell well during Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day, but there are windows of opportunity in between those holidays to promote sweet corn aggressively.”
— Jimmy Carter, Parker Farms
Some consumers possess negative perceptions that sweet corn can be “expensive and hard to prepare,” notes McFadden. “It is losing market share due to the time involved in cooking.”
Retailers can let consumers know that recipes are available online, through in-store displays and in online advertisements when the product is available. “Retailers can also build large, eye-catching displays, selling sweet corn in large multiples and pricing it correctly for the demand,” says Florida Department of Agriculture’s Moalli.
CROSS-MERCHANDISE FOR SUCCESS
Positioning sweet corn in other store areas helps lift sales of both categories. “Cross-merchandise with the meat department through steaks and hot dogs, and other items,” says Wanless. “Display butter squares with the refrigerated bulk displays; corn skewers and/or grilling displays should feature fresh sweet corn.”
Retailers can promote a number of Fresh from Florida options together in salsa using fresh sweet corn kernels with tomatoes, peppers and onions; in low country boils with Florida potatoes; in any of the Fresh from Florida online recipes; or with barbecue sauce, explains Moalli.
Many choose to erect large, standalone displays featuring fresh sweet corn with the husk on as the main focal point. They position tray-pack corn and complementary items around the fresh corn. Supplementary items might include spray butter, corn holders, salt and pepper or other items that could accompany the corn.
Most consumers tend to look for sweet corn in the summer months when grilling season is starting to gear up, especially in cool-weather states, says Moalli. Retailers can benefit greatly from promoting sweet corn as an ingredient in dishes such as soups, chowders and salsas before the summer months, especially during winter and spring. She recommends retailers highlight the alternative uses and early season of sweet corn.
Parker Farms works to provide ample volume to handle large-scale promotions throughout the spring, summer and fall, to cover retail ads during the major sweet corn holidays and other times. “Sweet corn is always going to sell well during Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day, but there are windows of opportunity in between those holidays to promote sweet corn aggressively,” says Carter.
Sweet corn’s prime consumers remain the older generation, those 45 years and older. Marketing should be directed to all groups, including children, adults and ethnic groups. June through August remain the best months for movement. “Pushing locally grown can help a bit,” says McFadden.