Clean displays of good quality in three colors still captivate.
There is a handful of new proprietary grape varieties worth noticing, like the large Red Globe Holiday Seedless, which promises good mouth appeal. And retailers agree there is evidence some consumers in upscale neighborhoods, in particular, are actively seeking out new eating experiences in their grapes. But merchandising table grapes still requires the maintenance of good-looking displays of tasty grapes in three colors. “I think it comes down to doing basics well,” says John Pandol, director of special projects at Pandol Brothers in Delano, CA. “You need to have a good quality grape, and you need to make sure it stays that way. One of the most underused tools in the produce department is the garbage can.” While the new varieties are worth watching, a relative handful of familiar red, green and black varieties out of California continue to dominate the fresh grape category. “The Top 15 varieties accounted for 87 percent of the crop total in 2015,” says Cindy Plummer, vice president of domestic marketing at the California Table Grape Commission in Fresno, CA.
Balance The Colors
A large, visible, clean display with good tasting grapes in three colors will work wonders in driving sales. “Displays are very important for grapes as consumers buy with their eyes,” says Plummer. “Beautiful and well-stocked grape displays will attract attention. Make sure the display includes promotion of all three colors of grapes, that the display is refreshed frequently and is large enough.”
This is one instance where size matters, and you can even put a number on it. “In order to obtain optimum sales results, target an average of at least 25 square feet of space devoted to grapes during May through August,” advises Plummer. “Space allocation of more than 25 feet can generate up to 63 percent more dollars per store per year than sets under 18 feet.” Shippers confirm the conclusion that larger displays drive grape sales. “The retailer makes the decisions about display,” says Atomic Torosian, managing member of Crown Jewels Marketing & Distribution in Fresno, CA. “There is data, though, that shows the larger a properly designed display, the larger volume sold.”
Prominent placement is as important as the size of the display in driving grape sales. “Not just the size, but also the location of the display is a big part of driving sales,” says Brian Crettol, sales manager at Jasmine Vineyards in Delano, CA. “I like to see big grape displays located prominently in the produce section right up front. Many times grapes are an impulse buy, and the more exposure we get the better. Product placement is key to driving sales. If the grapes are in the back corner of the produce section, sales will suffer.”
Opinions vary on the correct mix of colors in the display of fall grapes. Torosian suggests 50 percent red, 25 percent black and 25 percent green, but emphasizes color is not the most important factor. “Color is secondary,” says Torosian. “In my experience, the consumer looks for grapes that are firm to crunchy, and that ‘pop’ of sweetness and subtle flavor.” Nick Dulcich, owner of Sunlight International Sales in McFarland, CA, advises a similar ratio of 50 percent red, 40 percent green and 10 percent black in the display of fall grapes, and underscores the look of the display. You may even do just fine with two colors well displayed, rather than three, because black grapes are a distant third. “It’s not even three colors, it might be two, because black is not that popular,” says Pandol. “Red grapes are in the high 40 percents, green or white are in the low 40s, and everything else is four to 7 percent.”
If black grapes are to be merchandised, they should be next to the more popular red and green varieties. “Consumers typically seek colors of grapes based on their flavor preferences,” says Megan Schulz, director of communications at The Giumarra Companies, Los Angeles. “They are more open to trying black seedless varieties when they are merchandised with red and green seedless.”
“Not just the size, but also the location of the display is a big part of driving sales. I like to see big grape displays located prominently in the produce section right up front.”
— Brian Crettol, Jasmine Vineyards
Signage can add a final touch to the ample display of good-looking grapes in three colors. “Keep product refrigerated, displays full, and utilize POS materials,” says Dulcich. “Four to 6 feet is an eye-catching display and adequate to maintain a busy day’s sales.” The large display can be enhanced even further with information about the grapes, or the people who grew them. “Building large colorful displays of three colors of conventional and organic grapes close together at a fair price point, and telling the story of the grape variety, company, or grower tends to drive the consumers to purchase,” says Torosian. “The larger the display the more you sell if done properly.”
A good display will seal the deal once, but only good grapes will bring them back for more. “If you want repeat sales you have to protect your customers with good eating fruit regardless of variety,” advises Ron Wikum, category manager for table grapes at Bravante Produce in Reedley, CA. “Keep the fruit fresh. Rotate the stock and restock during the sales cycle. We all need to do whatever we can to get good eating fruit into the hands of the consumer.”
Build the display well and they will buy, as grapes are popular among virtually every demographic. “Grapes have ranked as the third most-popular fruit among consumers in the U.S. for 10 straight years,” says Plummer. “All income levels, ethnicities and ages report buying grapes during the California grape season on a regular basis regardless of economic climate.”
Table grapes sell every month of the year, as well as to all groups of people, but there is a trend toward greater sales when fresh fruit is available from North America, and slower sales the rest of the year.
“The overall grape category is steady but in the months when they are fresh from May to November it is growing, and in the months when they are coming out of storage or from outside North America, it is decreasing,” says Pandol. That means the “peak” season is when grapes are harvested from different regions in California, with a little help from our friends in Mexico.
“Since California produces 99 percent of the fresh grapes in the U.S., California grapes are America’s local grapes,” says Plummer. “The harvest starts in the southernmost Coachella Valley in early May and moves northward into the San Joaquin Valley, where grapes can be harvested into December. Grapes from California are available from May to January.”
Something New Under The Sun
Over the course of the 12-month season, it takes more than a dozen varieties to satisfy the appetite for three colors of grapes. “We pride ourselves on offering our customers variety throughout the store, and in our produce department, and grape selection is no exception,” says Maria Brous, director of media and community relations at Publix Super Markets, Inc., Lakeland, FL. “We offered our customers more than 15 different varieties of grapes last year.”
While different varieties are largely a matter of maintaining freshness, specialty grapes that account for a relatively small share of sales are increasing in importance in some markets. “There’s the conventional or generic varieties like Royal, Thompson and Red Globe; everybody sells those,” says Anthony Stetson, sales manager at Columbine Vineyards, Delano, CA. “For the most part, grape varieties are generic.”
“We pride ourselves on offering our customers variety throughout the store and in our produce department … We offered our customers more than 15 different varieties of grapes last year. ”
— Maria Brous, Publix Super Markets
Columbine, however, is among the grower-shippers finding success with a specialty variety. “We have a proprietary variety called Holiday Seedless that we sell based on the name and reputation,” says Stetson. “It’s like a seedless Red Globe. It has good flavor, size and eating quality. Sun World has their own proprietary varieties, too. You get a premium for the proprietary varieties; it’s definitely an upscale market.”
In some locales there is a relatively small, but definitely growing market for specialty grape varieties sold at a premium. “I think consumers are beginning to look to varieties with the different flavors being offered but they need to be educated about the varieties,” says Bravante’s Wikum. “The buyers are getting pretty good at recognizing the varieties but that has not been passed on to consumers yet. Sun World is doing that with their variety mix.”
There is considerable work yet to be done by shippers and retailers in educating consumers about these newer varieties. “I think some consumers actually do look for specific varieties as long as they are aware of the variety name,” says Sunlight’s Dulcich.
In the right markets, it might be worth the trouble to give consumers a taste of one or more of these specialty grapes. “Sampling can be a good way to introduce consumers to new and/or proprietary varieties,” says Giumarra’s Schulz. The market for specialty varieties may be small, but it is a large part of the continuing sales hikes in the fully mature grape category. “Grapes have increased the last five to seven years,” says Columbine’s Stetson. “A lot of it is driven by varieties with eating quality or uniqueness.”
In addition to always having three colors of grapes, some retailers do well by including new varieties in the mix. “While we carry our traditional offerings year-round of red, green and black from California, Chile, Peru and/or Mexico, we also offer short season grapes,” says Publix’s Brous. “These varieties include Cotton Candy, Witch Fingers (Moon Drops), Sweet Celebration, Stella Bella, Sweeties, Scarlotta, and Sugar Crunch just to name a few. These short season grape offerings can be in and out of stores within two to six weeks, but provide a flavor-packed grape option.”
“Packaging ‘talks’ to the consumer. Consumers learn to recognize brands, colors and logos of excellent products when the are presented consistently at the department level.”
— Nick Dulcich, Sunlight International Sales
As a Southern retailer, Publix does carry the regional favorite when it’s in season. “We do carry Muscadines, but that variety is not as popular as some of the others,” says Brous.
The model for some in the grape business is the tremendous number of apple varieties that have developed markets in recent years. “We look at the apple industry and see how they are marketing many varieties at one time while gaining shelf space in the supermarkets,” says Bravante’s Wikum. “I think that is something that could help the table grape category but I also think it will be very difficult to implement and educate both consumers and buyers. Apples are dominant in linear feet of display in the marketplace.”
It may be easy to get carried away, because there are only a few markets where consumers want something more than grapes that look and taste good in three colors. “In the specialty category, there’s a lot of activity that’s not adding up to huge numbers,” says Pandol. “If we include organic in specialty grapes, it’s seven or eight percent. If we take out organic, it’s probably three or four percent. Stores that would sell specialty grapes are the experiential destination grocers that have larger square footage.”
The top sellers that still make up nearly 90 percent of all the table grapes shipped out of California, according to Plummer, include Autumn King, Autumn Royal, Crimson Seedless, Flame Seedless, Princess, Red Globe, Scarlet Royal, Summer Royal, Thompson Seedless, and the six trademarked varieties Holiday, Pristine or Blanc Seedless, Vintage Red, Sweet Celebration, Sugarnineteen or Scarlotta Seedless, and Sugarone or Superior Seedless.
“Research shows that for the spring and summer grape season, retailers need to promote grapes from California three to five times per month, and doing so can increase sales by 30 to 57 percent,” says Plummer. “Front page ads create the greatest impact on the grape category followed by front page ads coupled with in-store price reductions. Make sure the grape ads include two or more varieties of grapes as that will help increase grape sales as well.”
The Package Can Seal The Deal
The package plays a role in selling the grapes, as well as keeping the product safe and in good condition. “Packaging does have an impact at the retail level; we have recently switched over to a stand-up handle bag which has been well received by our retail customers as well as the end consumer,” says Brian Crettol, sales manager at Jasmine Vineyards in Delano, CA.
Bags have become the standard with grapes because they are relatively economical, offer some product protection, and provide a combination of space for a logo or message and a view of the product. “The stand-up handle bag is the new hot ticket item in many produce categories,” says Crettol. “I can’t speak for the entire industry, but at Jasmine, 90 percent is in this new bag. Bulk is almost nonexistent in the States and in decline in foreign markets as well.”
Almost 85 percent of all the table grapes shipped out of California are in bags, according to Plummer, and only two percent are shipped loose. “Convenient stand-up, handle pouch bags arranged on a display are a perfect ‘grab and go’ solution for busy consumers who want to eat healthy,” says Megan Schulz, director of communications at The Giumarra Companies, Los Angeles. “The majority of our fruit is packed in these bags. The benefits of various packaging styles will depend on retailer. Bulk grapes can look beautiful and give a farmers-market feel to a grape display, but may require more attention and labor to maintain.”
The one exception to the popularity of the bags is with the club stores, which frequently choose to display their grapes in clamshells. “Clams in club stores are an advantage because of the type of shopping being done,” says Ron Wikum, category manager for table grapes at Bravante Produce in Reedley, CA. “The rigid container takes better care of the fruit in a full basket alongside a selection of items from a club store. Handle pouch is 95 percent of the market and takes very good care of the product.”
Table grapes shipped to certain export markets are also frequently shipped in clamshells. “Clamshells have been on the decline the past few years with a few exceptions like Costco and Sam’s Club, at least in the domestic market, but some export markets see strong demand for clamshells like New Zealand and the UK,” says Crettol.
California Table Grape Commission statistics show that, all told, around 13 percent of the grapes are in clamshells. “Bags and clamshells both have a place in the produce department,” says Cindy Plummer, vice president of domestic marketing at the California Table Grape Commission in Fresno, CA. “While there are some pouch bags sold as fixed weight, the majority of bagged grapes are sold as random weight whereas clamshells are all sold as fixed weight. There will always be a need for fixed weight packaging especially as produce items, including grapes, continue to be sold in stores without produce scales and in non-traditional food retailers.”
Whether it is bags, most likely, or clamshells the grape package delivers a sales message. “Packaging ‘talks’ to the consumer,” says Nick Dulcich, owner of Sunlight International Sales in McFarland, CA. “Consumers learn to recognize brands, colors and logos of excellent products when they are presented consistently at the department level. “Rigid packaging is more expensive to produce and bulk has increased shrink disadvantages, but stand-up pouch bags are an all-around solution. Pouch bags are the trend,” he says.
Because they are relatively inexpensive, and always available, this message finds consumers who see grapes as a staple fruit snack.
“Changes in the economy may have an effect on what the produce industry considers ‘luxury items,’” says Atomic Torosian, managing member of Crown Jewels Marketing & Distribution in Fresno, CA. “Typically though, grapes do not fall into this category because they are reasonably priced and readily available year-round. For these reasons, and because grapes are easy to eat and highly nutritious, consumers’ year-round demand for grapes is usually consistent regardless of changes in the economy.”