With an abundance of selling points, the ever-growing category remains robust.
Spring marks the start of sweet onions. Because of their sweeter and milder taste, these popular onions offer a variety of flavors and uses. Once considered a seasonal offering, multiple North American and South American growing regions allow retail stores to merchandise sweet onions throughout the year.
During the summer months and around holidays, sweet onions show their value. When Vidalias begin hitting the market and consumers clamor for them, merchandisers can get creative with ads, promotions and in-store displays.
“Sweet Onions are king across the category,” says Kelby Werner, operations manager with G&R Farms in Glennville, GA. “They anchor sales for the third-largest vegetable category in the United States. Consumers are utilizing their versatility in the kitchen 12 months out of the year. Sweet onions are a centerpiece in many holiday dishes, cookouts and at the family dinner table.”
Sweet onions are fast exceeding other traditional onions in the eyes of shoppers, says Sal Selletto, produce manager at the Super Foodtown of Sea Girt, NJ, a part of the Middletown, NJ-based Food Circus/Foodtown. “They are kind of dwarfing the Spanish onions in sales,” he says. “The Spanish onions have been lost in the sauce. We still sell them, but people get so used to sweet onions they tend to buy them all year long.”
Throughout the year, sweet onions ship from Peru, Mexico, Texas, Georgia, California, Washington, Nevada and other regions, providing retailers multiple merchandising opportunities. Spring is a great time to highlight onions in salads and grilling during holidays such as Easter, Cinco de Mayo, Mother’s Day, Memorial Day and graduation celebrations. To provide shoppers sweet onions they can use to enhance any dish, retailers should properly prepare and construct displays and promotions that encourage shoppers to place sweet onions in their shopping carts.
SWEET ONIONS: A SPRINGTIME BONANZA
The beginning of Vidalia shipments come at an important time, when people return to outdoor activities. “The Vidalia season starts in late April, just in time for grilling season,” says John Shuman, president of Shuman Farms, Inc., Reidsville, GA. “Vidalia onions pair perfectly with grilling meats and vegetables, including peppers, mushrooms, fresh beef and more.”
Sweet onions are critical to a successful produce department, says Lloyd Richter, partner with Richter and Co., Inc., based in Charlotte, NC. “It’s one of those things you cannot not have. It’s a must-carry item for the chains. Consumers would be disappointed if they’re not available. ”
Retailers contend the sweet onion category is important. “It’s a big category,” says Filipe Silva, general manager of Seabra Foods Supermarket, a Newark, NJ-based East Coast chain of ethnic-based supermarkets. “We sell many sweet onions. We sell a lot of salads, and people love onions on the top of the salads.”
In the United States, sweet onions begin in March with Texas growers shipping through May. In mid-April, Georgia’s Vidalias begin, shipping through Labor Day. The summertime brings a variety of other sweet onions, including Walla Wallas, California Sweets and Red Italian Sweets. In August, Northwest Sweets begin in Washington and harvest through March. In September, Peru begins shipping, supplying retailers with sweet onions through the fall and winter.
“The Vidalia created the sweet onion category,” says Steve Roberson, president of Roberson Onion Corp., based in Hazlehurst, GA. “Now the sweet onion category is a year-round category.”
“Sweet onion demand continues to grow,” says Mark Breimeister, sweet onion specialist with Potandon Produce LLC, Idaho Falls, ID. “Every year, as more and more people become familiarized, certainly with the efforts of the Vidalia Onion Committee to get people to try sweet onions, the popularity is now spreading to the other times of the year.”
The category is trending. “Instead of being seasonal, you have to have them all the time,” says John Vlahandreas, national onion sales director of the Idaho Falls, ID-based Wada Farms Marketing Group LLC. “With more and more information out there, the sweet onion section is getting a little bigger. We are starting to see more space toward sweet onions.”
Because sweet onions possess shorter shelf lives than storage onions, retailers can leverage sweet onions’ popularity by highlighting the “fresh” factor, says Rene Hardwick, director of public and industry relations for the National Onion Association (NOA), Greeley, CO. “We think all onions are great for retail sales. Sweet, or spring fresh onions, as they’re also called, add one more element to the year-round offerings.” Hardwick recommends displaying sweet onions with springtime recipes or providing how-to videos from QR codes on the recipes, which can be displayed with the onions.
“Sales of sweet onions continue to outperform years prior,” says Mike Blume, director of sales and marketing for Keystone Fruit Marketing, which is based in Greencastle, PA. “Sweet onion sales represent about one-third of the entire onion category sales. The future of sweet onions is bright. Onions are one of the most purchased vegetables. There are no signs of that changing anytime soon.”
There are plenty of choices, too. “No one variety of sweet onion is ‘best’ in terms of shape or flavor,” says Teri Gibson, director of marketing and customer relations for Peri & Sons Farms, Inc., which grows and ships Sweetie Sweet-branded sweet onions from Yerington, NV. “Each offers a unique consumer experience, which is the most important thing, right? This means the category has a unique opportunity to refresh the merchandising and messaging every few months throughout the year. New season, new onions, new story. It can stay fresh all year long. Onions are the common denominator in most all recipes.”
Retailers also should note sweet onions’ color. “Sweet onions don’t just come in yellow,” says Derrell Kelso, Jr., manager of Onions Etc., based in Stockton, CA. Kelso’s favorite sweet onion is the Stockton — Fresno flat Italian sweet. “It’s the red wine of the onion category,” he says. “Retailers who do a great job in educating consumers of growing districts, flavors and seasonal trends — and who tell the story about the onion — sell more sweet onions. Retailers should educate store merchandisers on the ‘who, what and where’ of the onions. Store merchandisers play a huge role in communicating and selling.”
During the spring and summer, the way to sell more sweet onions is to promote Vidalias, advises Delbert Bland, president of Bland Farms LLC, which grows and ships from Glennville, GA. “The No. 1 thing retailers can do is: make sure the customer understands their store has Vidalias,” he says. “If consumers know you have Vidalias, they will buy them. Too many stores spend all this money building massive displays, but they won’t put up a sign saying these are Vidalia onions.”
Retailers should tbe proactive in merchandising sweet onions, says Jeff Brechler, salesman with Edinburg, TX-based J&D Produce, Inc. “Make sure the sweets are differentiated somehow from the other yellow varieties out there, whether you carry sweets as bulk with storage as bags, or vice-versa,” he says. “That’s an easy step to do as it will help get accurate rings at the register, where they won’t be giving away for 40 cents what should sell for $1.29.”
Signage is required, says Peri’s Gibson. “When consumers can clearly and easily identify sweet onions from easy-to-read signage, sweet-onion wording on packages and distinctive displays, sweet onions sell like crazy,” she says. Signage is especially important for merchandising bulk displays of sweet onions, as PLU stickers, even large ones, are difficult for consumers to read and easily flake off the onion skins.
Instead of displaying piles of light-skinned sweets, dark-skinned storage and red and white onions together, Brechler recommends using bags to break-up the display and highlight the individual types. “Sweet onion displays all look the same,” he says. “There is some differentiation by color. People need to be educated on the flavor profile differences.”
BIG DISPLAYS, BIG SALES
Large displays work well in increasing sales, says Bob Stafford, manager of the Vidalia Onion Committee (VOC), Vidalia, GA. “Shoppers like to see a big display,” he says. Of equal importance is proper attention to the displays. “We encourage stores to work the bins and work them well to keep bad product out,” says Stafford. “Keep the display looking good. That is very critical for store success in selling sweet onions and Vidalia onions in particular.”
Wada Farms’ Vlahandreas says he’s dismayed when he sees produce workers dump sweet onions on tables. “Build the display,” he says. “Don’t just cut open the bag and dump them sideways on the shelves. Build a display and make it look like something different. Put a sign up, and explain what it is. Make a difference.”
Breimeister at Potandon says, “just throwing them out in a small basket, they often get passed over. Of course, big end cap displays work well. Bulk bin displays always seem to drive sales.”
KNOW YOUR LIMITS AND SEASONS
Keystone’s Blume cautions that too much of a good thing might be too much in the case of onions. “As sweet onions are perishable, more so than traditional yellow onions, displays should only be as large as what a retailer can sell through in a couple of days.”
Shuman recommends retail produce managers pay attention to the times of the year. “We like to recommend retailers focus on the importance of seasonality, holidays and consumer trends during Vidalia season,” he says. “For example, we are seeing the topic of meal planning driving search inquiries and purchases just as much as the spring holidays.”
For proper merchandising, retailers should distinguish sweet onions from other onions. “Utilizing retail display cases and/or attractive consumer packaging separate from the general onion category creates a greater opportunity to catch the attention of consumers and increase sales,” says Lauren Dees, marketing manager of Generation Farms, based in Lake Park, GA. “Key factors for Millennials when purchasing produce is attractive displays and signage, innovative packaging as well as useful tips and recipes. Sweet onions pair well with other produce and can quickly lead consumers to purchase in one area of the store a convenient vegetarian meal or side dish.”
Careful thought should be placed into developing displays, says J&D’s Brechler. “Organized and neat displays are important,” he says. “They need to be constantly refilled and worked by the people in the stores.” While display size is important, they don’t need to be gigantic. “You don’t have to have a mountain of them to move them,” explains Brechler. “Calling attention to them is No. 1. For No. 2., make sure the displays are always stocked and full, that they don’t look like they’ve been picked through with only three or so onions in the bin. It’s important to maintain them.”
A key piece of advice is proper placement. “Make sure they are easily found, not in the corner and by no means a small display,” says Onions Etc.’s Kelso. “Always remember that when you sell an onion to someone, you’re selling to a consumer who is going to cook. This consumer is not just an onion buyer. They are going to buy more than just an onion. A consumer buying a piece of fruit, they don’t have to buy anything else. A consumer buying a bunch of asparagus, artichokes or strawberries may not buy anything else. But a consumer buying an onion, the onion is an ingredient. You sell a consumer an onion, you can sell them anything in your store but maybe ice cream.”
Retailers do well merchandising sweet onions in a variety of packaging. “Bulk, bags and bins offer a range of merchandising options from end cap to first eye areas of stores,” says G&R’s Werner.
Kevin Hendrix, vice president of Hendrix Produce, Inc., Metter, GA, recommends retailers merchandise a variety of packaging. “A great way to merchandise would be to run bag ads along in rotation with bulk,” he says. “Rotate the bag promotions and bulk promotions. We have seen a lot of success with those.” Hendrix says interest is growing in the 2-, 3-, 4- and 5-pound bags.
Creating meat bunkers, which include all ingredients for a recipe, represents an effective way to help shoppers live healthy and choose nourishing meals while simultaneously increasing in-store sales, says NOA’s Hardwick. “This concept eliminates common consumer barriers to eating more frequent family meals – lack of new meal ideas and limited time – and cross promotes products from various departments of the store,” she says.
Attention should be paid to the younger demographics. “Although Millennials purchase sweet onions less frequently than older generations, providing recipes is a great way to encourage them to buy,” says Keystone’s Blume.
POSITION THROUGHOUT STORE
Cross merchandising through secondary displays helps maximize sales opportunities and assists consumers with meal planning. Retailers can use secondary displays and other promotional materials throughout the store to drive incremental sales, says Shuman.
“Based on our consumer research, we know merchandising Vidalia onions throughout the produce department is important to maximize sales,” he says. “Shuman Farms offers full-color, high-graphic secondary display bins that can be easily placed not only in the produce department, but also in the meat department, which offers customers the perfect add-on item to what they are already putting in their baskets.”
It’s not difficult to cross-merchandise sweet onions. “Sweet onions can easily have a home all over the store, helping consumers with easy meal ideas,” says Generation Farms’ Dees. “During the appropriate time of year, sweet onions can partner with an outdoor theme to encourage grilling, tomatoes and jalapeños for tailgate salsa or carrots and sweet potatoes near the holidays.”
Proper placement is important. “Put them in places such as near the hamburger section,” says Roberson. “There’s nothing better for a hamburger than a Vidalia onion. When you put a cold crisp slice of a Vidalia on a hamburger, it makes hamburgers gourmet burgers.”
Bland Farms’ “create your own sandwich” promotion gives shoppers $1 coupons applicable for each of the following items when purchased together: onions, a particular type of meat, salad dressing or mayonnaise. “These kinds of promotions are a lot of fun, too,” says Bland. “It’s things the shoppers will buy, anyway, so lead them in the direction you want them to go. There’s always something to cross-merchandise with onions. You can eat an onion with anything.”
In May, Shuman Farms plans in-store and online promotions to match the excitement and consumer demand for Vidalias. The company also plans to offer RealSweet onions that support Feeding America. “In the United States, one in six children face hunger every day,” says Shuman. “We know that summer break, without school breakfasts and lunches, is a particularly vulnerable time for those in need. Shuman Produce will provide 50,000 meals to families and will continue to work with Produce for Kids to spread awareness about hunger.”
Promotions are instrumental in increasing sales. “Build the category with promotions and intel,” advises Onions Etc.’s Kelso. “A strong produce department’s sales is led with the onion category. You ignore and don’t promote the onion, big mistake. Show me a consumer that does not buy onions, and I will show you a consumer who does not cook a lot.”
(Story originally printed in the April 2019 issue of Produce Business. )