Investing in organic bananas can pay dividends.
Originally printed in the September 2023 issue of Produce Business.
Organic products saw a sales boom during the pandemic years, and increased awareness of healthy eating is continuing to benefit organic suppliers and retailers alike. One area of the segment that is benefiting is organic bananas, which represented 12% of total retail banana sales in 2021, compared with 8% in 2017, according to IRL data shared by San Diego, CA’s Organics Unlimited.
When considering the potential of the organic market, it’s worth bearing in mind that the category surpassed $63 billion in sales for the first time in 2021, according to the 2022 Organic Industry Survey from the Washington CD-based Organic Trade Association. Organic fruits and vegetables accounted for 15% of this total, up from 10.5% in 2020.
Judging from these numbers, it is clear the market is buoyant, but how can grocery retailers take advantage of it? How should organic bananas be optimally procured, merchandised and marketed, and do these vary across the country?
For Coral Gables, FL-based Fyffes North America, the organic banana segment holds significant importance in terms of market growth, branding and sustainable responsibilities, says trade marketing manager Ahiby Rodriguez.
“Consumer awareness and preference for organic products, including bananas, has been steadily growing and by focusing on this expanding market segment, we can attract health-conscious and environmentally aware consumers and reinforce our commitment as a socially responsible and sustainable brand,” she says.
Sourcing organic bananas from Ecuador — the world’s largest supplier — as well as Mexico, Colombia and Peru, Fyffes, like much of the industry, has seen significant growth in the organic segment over the past five years.
However, a word of caution. While the market experienced steady expansion during the first four years of this period, Rodriguez says the growth rate has decreased over the past 12 months, a result of inflationary pressures and supply challenges.
Despite this, she believes the overall performance of the organic banana category indicates a positive trend, with substantial growth potential driven by consumers seeking healthy, nutritious produce options.
Bil Goldfield, director of corporate communications for the Dole Food Company in Charlotte, NC, goes further, singling out organic produce as the segment where Dole sees the greatest opportunity for significant, long-term growth.
“Organic bananas continue seeing double-digit percentage growth in both volume and dollars year-over-year,” he says. “Those who opt for organic bananas typically have a greater appreciation for the health and wellness, natural products, and the environmental and social benefits of organic produce in general, with price being a less significant factor.”
As organic becomes increasingly mainstream, the percentage of the produce department footprint devoted to organic fruits and vegetables is growing, and the distinction between organic and conventional shoppers is narrowing, Goldfield believes.
“More and more shoppers are willing to pay the premium for organic fruit,” he adds.
Dole started its organic banana program 28 years ago and is now the largest grower and distributor of premium organic bananas in the U.S. Although the company’s first organic farm originated in Honduras, Dole’s organic production is now spread across Latin America, primarily in Colombia and Ecuador, with additional sourcing in Peru and Mexico.
Premium organic bananas have been the specialty of Organics Unlimited since the 1970s. The company draws on a diversified sourcing program that general manager Daniella Velázquez de León says guarantees uninterrupted supply year-round in its key markets: the U.S., Canada and Japan.
Organic bananas, she continues, have benefited from the emergence of the more health-conscious and environmentally aware consumer. In fact, Velázquez de León says it is very rare for a retailer not to carry an organic option.
Mónica Molineros, commercial manager of Coral Gables, FL-based Favorita USA Corp. — part of major Guayaquil, Ecuador, banana conglomerate Reybanpac — says demand for organic bananas has been growing consistently, including for Favorita’s imports from Ecuador and Central America.
“The organic banana category represents 30% of our sales in the U.S. market. Worldwide, our main markets are the European Union and the U.S.,” she says.
In fact, Molineros says demand is so high that Favorita’s U.S. organic banana share now matches the European market. “Favorita has a significant organic program, and it has been one of our most competitively priced products in the U.S.,” she says.
Bananas are a top 10 item and a core staple at Lakewood, CO-based Natural Grocers, an organics-focused chain that operates more than 166 stores across 21 states.
“We are currently sourcing organic bananas from Mexico and since we only sell 100% USDA certified organic produce, vs. a conventional grocer or a market that carries organic and conventional, our sales are steady,” says produce category manager Matt Fowler.
“We don’t have folks choosing between organic or conventional. Many of our customers shop with us for this very reason — they don’t want the risk of cross-contamination from synthetic pesticides, or waste time trying to figure out which is which.”
SPACE TO SALES
But how can you get the most from your organic bananas sales and maximize shelf space without encroaching on conventional?
Organics Unlimited’s Velázquez de León recommends differentiating organic from conventional by carrying a recognized brand for each segment.
“Consumers are more likely to trust specialized, niche brands when it comes to organic,” she argues. “Carry a trusted conventional brand for your conventional produce and a trusted brand that specializes in organic for your organic selection.”
Closer to the retail front line, Fowler suggests full, front-facing displays to showcase organic bananas. “Customers like to choose their bananas based on personal preference, so making sure we have consistently full displays is key,” he says.
Since not all customers are the same, Rodriguez says Fyffes’ teams make specific recommendations depending on demographics and shopper profiles. “This decision depends on each retailer’s alignment with their overall organic strategy,” she explains.
“The key factors involve giving the right shelf space, clearly labeling it as organic, ensuring the proper fruit color is displayed, and continuing to educate consumers about the health and environmental benefits of organic bananas.
“Ideally, organic bananas would have a dedicated section in the department, and no less important, applying secondary displays (with cross categories) will drive incremental sales to the category.”
Ana Cristina Fonseca, vice president of product management North America at Del Monte Fresh Produce N.A., based in Coral Gables, FL, recommends displaying organic bananas in the organic section to create an easy shopping experience for consumers.
“If they are to be displayed next to conventional bananas, there should be clear signage distinguishing the two, so consumers can make a clear and informed choice,” she says. “A tried-and-true way to merchandise and promote organic bananas is to be transparent and honest in where they come from.”
Del Monte grows bananas on company-controlled farms in Costa Rica, Guatemala and the Philippines. It additionally buys from independent growers in Costa Rica, Guatemala, Ecuador, Colombia, Mexico, the Philippines and Cameroon.
Similarly, Dole’s Goldfield advises having secondary racks for organic and displays adjacent to conventional.
“We’ve found that a separate display for organic results in larger and more frequent organic produce purchases — not just for bananas, but for all organic fruits and vegetables. For bananas, specifically, recent data shows that placing your organic display next to conventional encourages a trade-up mentality,” he says.
Goldfield also recommends placing secondary displays of bananas at checkout or alongside complementary products, such as cereal, yogurt, milk or grilled favorites during the summer and “brown-bag staples” during back-to-school months.
Favorita’s Molineros says another key strategy to increase awareness of the qualities of organic bananas is communication. “On top of the environmental positive impact, our bananas are responsibly grown fulfilling social standards,” she says. “It is important to raise consumer awareness over good agricultural practices and let them know about the effort being made by producers.”
Another consideration when it comes to selling organic bananas is the question of ripening: What is the organic customer’s preference on the green-to-mature spectrum?
“Some consumer insights show they buy bananas that are more yellow than green (stage 3-4), but consumption occurs during stages 5-6 because consumers don’t want to waste, and especially organic banana consumers who are more food-waste conscious,” says Fyffes’ Rodriguez.
“Most retailers provide a diverse assortment (at least two colors) to offer to shoppers’ varying preferences, since they can have different opinions on when bananas taste the best.”
Velázquez de León from Organics Unlimited views ripening as key when it comes to bananas at retail. “Our recommendation is that retailers order a 3 ½ and display 4-5s,” she says. “The 4-5 range is ripe enough that it gives consumers room for selection and decent product life.”
In a similar vein, Natural Grocers’ Fowler recommends “almost ripened,” which he says gives customers the assurance that bananas will continue to ripen once they bring them home without having to consume them before they become over-ripe.
REGIONAL DIFFERENCES AND DEMOGRAPHICS
It’s not one-size-fits-all when it comes to marketing organic bananas.
“Typically, consumers prefer minimal packaging for bananas to minimize waste and promote eco-friendliness,” says Fyffes’ Rodriguez. “Consumers and retailers likewise are increasingly concerned about reducing plastic usage, and organic consumers are particularly vocal on this matter.”
Fyffes, she says, uses a 2-inch band to differentiate between organic and conventional bananas.
Similarly, Fowler says Natural Grocers tries to stay away from packaging in produce as much as possible, avoiding options such as bagging. “Bananas are easy to grab and contain in your basket, bag or cart, but we also offer compostable paper and special compostable plastic produce bags in this department,” he says.
Marketing organic bananas correctly is arguably just as important as packaging considerations, and Fowler says Natural Grocers gears its marketing toward seasonal appropriateness and nutritional benefits vs. specific age demographics. These efforts are reinforced by the company’s own Nutrition Education Department, which focuses on research, educational content and recipes.
Velázquez de León from Organics Unlimited says her company is an advocate of “less is more” when it comes to packaging. “Bagged bananas are an unnecessary use of plastic,” she says. “Organic consumers want less plastic.”
To reach the correct target audience, Organics Unlimited focuses on initiatives such as a partnership with The Produce Moms, a platform that provides resources for adding more fruits and vegetables to family diets, as well as activity sheets and recipes for children.
BEST PRACTICE ON PRICING
The next stage in getting the most out of an organic banana offering is the thorny issue of pricing. Should there be a premium for organic bananas? And what are the best practices when it comes to pricing?
Fyffes’ Rodriguez says the premium on organic ranges from 15 to 25 cents, although she argues organic bananas are an affordable choice compared to other organic fruits and vegetables.
“Our research indicates that at least 60% of consumers are willing to pay this premium, and for those with a stronger eco-conscious mindset, the willingness to pay can be even higher,” she reveals. “For budget-conscious consumers seeking to buy organic produce, bananas offer a cost-effective solution without compromising health or environmental benefits.”
“Consumers understand that organic bananas will generally taste the same as conventional, but have less understanding of the increased costs associated with more hands-on labor and premium growing inputs,” says Dole’s Goldfield.
In particular, he believes the biggest marketing challenge for organic bananas is educating consumers on why organic bananas carry a higher price tag.
“Our goal has long been to translate this premium, traceable to higher growing costs, into tangible consumer health, environment and societal benefits,” says Goldfield. “As organic produce continues its move from niche to mainstream appeal, this learning curve is flattened. It’s safe to say that today’s shoppers are more educated about organic than ever before.”
“There is indeed a premium in pricing for organic bananas,” agrees Favorita’s Molineros. “This is because cultivation without the use of agrochemicals implies a significant extra effort to guarantee the quality of the fruit.”
Organics Unlimited’s Velázquez de León is more bullish in her assessment. Although it may not be a popular opinion, she advises retailers not to be afraid to break the $1 threshold. Why? She argues that the “goal of price parity” between organic and conventional bananas does not reflect the reality on farms.
“Growing organic carries a premium because it is inherently more costly to produce,” Velázquez de León argues. “We are firm advocates of fair pricing on bananas and have done various tests with retail partners who retail at $1.27-$1.60 per pound and have still seen a year-over-year increase on volume. It’s a win-win from growers to retailers.”