Transcending With Tropicals

Originally printed in the January 2020 issue of Produce Business.

Tips to grow sales and maximize profitability.

Walk into any retail store today, and the tropical category will have become far more diverse; offering all shapes, flavors, colors and sizes to suit every customer profile, supported by global imports, and, for some items, the evolution of domestic production.

“Think of tropicals as a welcome mat to culturally diverse consumers, health-conscious individuals, parents with kids in tow, and folks who also shop online,” explains Mary Ostlund, marketing director for Brooks Tropicals in Homestead, FL.

“The category encompasses products from exotic items, such as passionfruit and mangos, to ethnic items, such as yuca and yams,” says Ricardo Echeverri, vice president of sales for tropicals, at Fyffes North America in Coral Gables, FL.

Alex Jackson Berkley, director of sales at Frieda’s in Los Alamitos, CA, attributes this broadening to consumers traveling more, plus their exposure to a wider variety of produce through social media and food television.

“We are beyond the days where consumers only buy bananas and pineapples,” says Jackson Berkley. “They now expect to see items like dragonfruit, young coconut, jackfruit, rambutan, lychee and passionfruit in their produce department.”

Suppliers each have their own tropical rankings but, generally, they identify mangos, pineapples, papayas, coconuts, jackfruit, passionfruit, dragonfruit, cherimoya and rambutan as the biggest items in terms of volume sales. Bananas are the largest by far, and remain a singular category.


Jackfruit represents the surprise in the basket, having soared in the past five years, says Robert Schueller, director of public relations at Melissa’s Produce in Los Angeles. Young coconut from Thailand has also registered double-digit growth thanks to the trend of drinking coconut water.

“Of all the specialty tropical fruits, jackfruit has been the most dramatic in terms of rising popularity,” he says. “Vegans and vegetarians have found jackfruit can be used in savory dishes. Because it contains protein it can be used as a meat substitute for pulled pork or taco meat.”

Data from Frieda’s shows rambutan and lychee also rank in the top-10 grossing tropical items. “Rambutan is available year-round from several countries, allowing it to have more visibility with consumers,” explains Jackson Berkley. “Lychee is more limited, which causes consumers to get very excited when it’s in season. Retailers take advantage of that excitement.”

When it comes to tropical root vegetables, Jackson Berkley identifies turmeric as one of the most popular on the market right now. “This is becoming a staple in every produce department around the United States […] mostly because of the health benefits that have been promoted, especially anti-inflammation,” she says.

Schueller agrees, describing the turmeric trend as “humungous” and comparable to the rise of jackfruit. “Turmeric has exploded as an import,” he notes, adding that ginger is another highly popular line. Other tropical or ethnic roots include chayote, malanga and okra.

Tropical fruits, including dragon fruit on top and ginger root, are becoming more mainstream, much to the delight of retailers from coast to coast.


With health especially driving sales, operators agree the outlook remains bright, meaning the retail range is important. “If your tropicals section stops at bananas and pineapples, you’re stuck at the stop light… it can be a long light,” cautions Ostlund from Brooks.

Echeverri of Fyffes favors stocking items depending on the demographics surrounding each store. “Products are consumed by different cultures all sharing their own distinct culinary traditions,” he notes. “For example, Mexicans do not usually eat plantains but do eat avocados. Nonetheless, all retailers should carry all mainstream items, such as avocados, pineapples and mangos. Regarding ethnic items, yuca and chayote are becoming mainstream and should also be carried by all retailers.”

Ostlund notes that papayas, both big and small, are indispensable. “Show cut fruit, sell fruit cut in half with a spoon and wedge of lime,” she advises. “Let signage show how solo papayas can provide a healthy bowl to almost any dish. Add starfruit to ready-to-eat salads, both fruit and leafy. Passion fruit is a must stock. Your customers have been seeing ‘passion fruit’ in foodservice drinks and dishes. They will be willing to try. Make sure POS material tells them passion fruit is wrinkled when ripe. Dragonfruit is so wild on the outside, so creamy mild on the inside. It’s a cart-stopper.”


As for displaying tropicals, Fyffe’s Echeverri says retailers should group by segment, so ‘exotics,’ ‘ethnic’ or ‘mainstream.’ “All ethnic items, like yuca, chayote, yams, malanga, ginger, calabaza and such, should be grouped together in big displays,” he suggests. “Exotics, like mangos, papayas, passion fruit, dragonfruit etc., should be grouped together under ‘exotics’.”

“The flight path in the produce department always leads to bananas, so tropicals will get guaranteed exposure when merchandised with them. Some retailers are experimenting with merchandising tropical fruit amongst commodities like apples, pears and citrus. ”

— Alex Jackson Berkley, Frieda’s

For Ostlund, the key is to focus solely on produce that is grown only in the tropics, which she classes as tropical avocados, papayas, passion fruit, starfruit, dragonfruit, coconut, ginger, limes, lychee, sapodilla, mamey, jackfruit and rambutan.

And while, typically, tropicals are displayed together at room temperature. “The only big seller that needs to be refrigerated is young coconut because of the water inside,” suggests Schueller at Melissa’s, adding that okra also needs to be chilled. “You may find rambutan and lychees in the refrigerated section. Proper storage is important to avoid shrink on the shelf.”

Rambutan sales now rank in the top 10 of tropicals.


When it comes to merchandising, Ostlund says retailers should make the most of the “explosion” of colors and shapes, which makes the tropicals’ aisle a popular destination in the produce department. Multiple displays are essential too. “Tropicals should never be corralled just in one area,” she stresses. “If the tropical has gone mainstream, it’s displayed judiciously both in the tropicals section and other areas. The tropical fruit highlighted outside the tropical aisle will often create a spark of sales.

“Large papayas, like our Caribbean Reds, make a beautiful skirt display under melons,” continues Ostlund. “Solo papayas are known to fly in the cereal aisle when POS material shows a solo half as the cereal bowl. Solos are misnamed. They aren’t meant to be enjoyed all by themselves. POS should show salads, sides and cereals.”

Ostlund reminds retailers that dragonfruit, starfruit and passionfruit have the ability to “change fruit salads forever.” “Be the harbinger of change,” she enthuses. “Show photos of a fruit salad topped with starfruit and passionfruit all held in a dragonfruit half. Place ripe passionfruit by the ready-to-eat salads with POS material suggesting to scoop passionfruit on top of the fruit or leafy salad.”

Equally, Ostlund recommends placing a passionfruit display by the ice tea with POS that reminds consumers of passionfruit tea enjoyed in a favorite restaurant, or with fruit punch since passionfruit is the flavor that makes ‘Hawaiian Punch’ a favorite among children. “A display that plays that up will tempt a parent or two into the aisle,” she predicts.

Indeed, visibility is a top way to increase sales. “Tropicals are almost always an impulse buy; get them out there in front of people, or throw them in an ad,” urges Ryan Ellison, produce category manager for K-Va-T Food Stores, headquartered in Abingdon, VA.

“We like to display tropical items on the fronts and sides of our banana table. For shoppers that are not looking specifically for a tropical item, we use the fact that bananas are still a go-to for most people.”

Jackson Berkley at Frieda’s agrees tropicals are best merchandised with bananas, pineapples, mangos and papayas. “The flight path in the produce department always leads to bananas, so tropicals will get guaranteed exposure when merchandised with them,” she comments. “Some retailers are experimenting with merchandising tropical fruit amongst commodities like apples, pears and citrus.”

Ostlund says starfruit displays make sense in the apple aisle. “Starfruit is a great snack eaten whole or sliced into stars,” she demonstrates.

Jesse Garcia, vice president of sales for LA Produce Distributors in Los Angeles, says displaying ripe and ready-to-eat fruit is highly effective also. “Working with retailers to deliver a ready-to-eat fruit would significantly increase sales,” he determines. “This would mostly mean a change in how the fruit is received and stored. Receiving specs must change.”

While shoppers are drawn to tropicals year-round, the category’s diversity enables tie-ins with seasonal holidays, such as Halloween, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, New Year, Chinese New Year, Valentine’s Day and Cinco de Mayo. “Traditions of using particular fruits and vegetable for particular holidays are key, beyond their seasonality,” notes Schueller from Melissa’s. “This is where retailers should take advantage of making products more attractive. Make special signage, offer promotional pricing; make it attractive to consumers through discounts, and encourage shoppers to come in store to buy the products.”

On top of that, Bil Goldfield, director of corporate communications for Dole, Westlake Village, CA, has other suggestions. “Another idea for both retailers and suppliers is to feature tropicals in larger promotions that offer a tropical vacation, or a related themed incentive as the grand prize,” he proposes.

Jackson Berkley from Frieda’s says retailers can focus on the different usages and preparation methods too. “Jackfruit is an awesome summer-grilling item and does well when slow-cooked in a crockpot with different sauces and spices,” she suggests. “There are also more fall-centric tropical items, such as quince and Fuyu persimmon, that lend well to baking.”

Another strategy to highlight tropicals at different time periods is to follow the sales pattern for individual products, recommends Echeverri from Fyffes NA. “Coconuts are in high demand during summer, then it goes down during winter,” he points out. “Ethnic tropicals, such as yuca and calabaza, also are in high demand during winter, while demand decreases during summer.”


On the marketing front, the most compelling POS methods to educate consumers about unfamiliar tropicals include sampling, signage or brochures with health facts and preparation ideas, recipe cards, plus educational photos and videos.

Although expensive, Schueller of Melissa’s notes demonstrations are highly effective. “Consumers won’t buy unless they have a plan of action, or have had it in a restaurant, heard about it on the radio or seen it on TV,” he cautions. “If you can demo it, that’s where the educational process starts. It’s critical retailers do something to educate customers.”

Ostlund at Brooks advises placing photos of sliced tropical fruit at the POS. “Let starfruit show its stars,” she says. “Show what’s inside that dragonfruit (red or white). Show a color range for starfruit; showing green as tart, yellow as sweet and yellow-orange as the sweetest.”

Above all, Ostlund says retailers should demand that their POS signage is read. “Show a cartoon dragon in the dragonfruit POS,” she advises. “See if that doesn’t get kids in the cart pointing. To a kid, dragonfruit can look like a porcupine, and starfruit a star gleaned from the sky. Use a ‘Don’t eat it NOW!’ sign for passionfruit, and show a wrinkled fruit with the wording ‘Enjoy it NOW’.”

K-Va-T makes 3”x 5” information cards to display with tropicals. “We call them ‘produce hacks’,” explains Ellison. “It provides a quick educational lesson on how to either pick the best fruit, how to cut it up or some health benefits.”

Additionally, all K-Va-T stores feature a pineapple corer to cut pineapples free of charge. “We have found the largest obstacle to purchasing tropical items is the lack of education on how to cut the item,” notes Ellison.

Nonetheless, Ellison says tropicals sales seem to move continuously in a positive direction. “I think as Millennials continue to make up more of the shopper base, their willingness to ‘Google’ how to do something helps us tremendously. Not only are they hearing about new items, but they are seeking out those items.”

With health consciousness among all generations contributing to tropical sales growth, retailers are advised to follow the successful trend of marketing nutritional benefits, which has supercharged fruits like avocados and blueberries.

“The most effective strategy is when all parts of the marketing mix are combined into an integrated superior taste and nutrition message designed to impact behavior,” notes Dole’s Goldfield. “This is how other previously obscure fruits and vegetables have become mainstream.”

Usage ideas backed up by accurate, dietitian-tested nutritional information are also key. “Sales become impacted when the media gets behind the health benefits of an item, like what’s happened with fresh turmeric over the past several years,” explains Berkley of Frieda’s. “Showing consumers how they can use nutritious produce items in an everyday application is very effective.”

Ellison says K-Va-T stresses the health benefits of tropicals every chance it gets. “Everyone is looking for superfoods. Calling out the health benefits certainly applies to everyone. Older folks are looking for foods that are healthier for them and easy to use. Millennials are known for paying attention to their health as well. Both are much more in tune with nutrition and how it relates to their health.”

Goldfield reminds retailers that certain tropical messages “play better” to certain audiences. For instance, he says older audiences are now just as likely as their younger counterparts to respond to new recipes, ingredients and dishes. But for Millennials there is another trend to consider. “Of high concern to this group is how the products are sourced and ensuring that growers are valued and fairly compensated.”