Diverse offerings create excitement in produce department
Think of the word “tropical” and lush exotic climates come to mind. This is exactly the environment where tropical fruits and vegetables grow. Many of these — from mangos, coconuts and papayas to starfruit, lychees and cherimoya — are classified as specialty fruit, which, according to Chicago-based Nielsen Perishables Group, collectively contributed 1.1 percent to produce department dollar sales during the 52 weeks ending Oct. 1, 2016. Demographic shifts in the United States, combined with the majority of shoppers having been exposed to tropicals on the shelf for several years, mean there’s opportunity for sales of these fruits and vegetables to flourish in the future.
“Your consumer isn’t going to buy that many more apples, grapes or bananas to excite any growth curve,” says Mary Ostlund, marketing director for Brooks Tropicals Inc., in Homestead, FL. “But they will buy new fruits and veggies to try and to expand their healthy eating habits. Tropicals represent growth, both as a category and as a driver for expanding consumer produce sales.”
“Diversity” is a perfect word to describe the tropicals category, says Jose Rossignoli, tropical general manager for sourcing at Robinson Fresh in Eden Prairie, MN. “The category has more than 20 different items, some of which are considered mainstream and some are considered ethnics.”
“Bananas and pineapples,” says Marc Holbik, vice president at Ecoripe Tropicals in Miami, “followed by avocados, mangos and papayas, create the core five tropical fruits in terms of volume and sales.”
Avocados have become commonplace, say suppliers, due to sheer volume and availability.
“Mangos and papayas both have been trending upward consistently in the past 10 to 15 years as more retailers dedicate more shelf space to these categories,” says Andres Ocampo, director of operations for HLB Specialties LLC, in Pompano Beach, FL.
These two fruits made up nearly half (48.2 percent) of specialty fruit dollar sales at retail during the 52 weeks ending Oct. 1, 2016, according to Nielsen Perishables Group, with mangos representing 36.4 percent and papayas 11.8 percent. Mango volume has increased more than 50 percent in the past decade, according to data supplied by the National Mango Board (NMB), Orlando, FL. More specifically, consumer per capita availability has grown to 2.59 lbs. per person in 2015, and weekly store volume has improved from 132 units per store per week in 2005 to 213 units per store per week in 2015. The top six commercialized mango varieties in the market are Ataulfos, Francis, Haden, Keitt, Kent and Tommy Atkins.
“As consumers become more familiar with mangos, they are willing to try different varieties and experiment with the different flavors,” says Angela Serna, communications manager for NMB. “Retailers are encouraged to offer multiple varieties, sizes and prices to present consumers with more options.”
This season, Melissa’s/World Variety Produce, Los Angeles, is offering mangos from Australia through March. “We are carrying Honey Gold, Kensington Pride and R2E2, primarily one at a time, to span throughout the season,” says Robert Schueller, director of public relations.
Southern Specialties, based in Pompano Beach, FL, hopes to offer a pre-ripened ready-to-eat mango program in the near future. “Ready-to-eat mangos are popular in Europe,” says Charlie Eagle, vice president of business development for Southern Specialties. “We think the time is right in the United States and that the U.S. consumer is willing to pay a premium for this fruit.”
As for papaya, “We are having great success with our exclusive Organic Formosa papaya which we have been offering for the past 18 months. As is the case with other categories, tropicals are no exception when it comes to organic products. We are expanding our base of customers for the product and retailers keep asking for it,” says Ocampo.
Regarding tropical vegetables, the most popular are yucca, chayote, malangas and yams, according to Natalia Rangel, marketing coordinator for the tropical division at the Turbana Corporation, in Coral Gables, FL. “The volume of these roots and tubers has seen a dramatic increase as immigration from Asia and Latin America continues to rise.”
At Bristol Farms and Lazy Acres, a 15-store chain based in Carson, CA, bananas, pineapple and mangos aren’t classified in the tropical category because these stand-alone categories do extremely well as they are. The stores define tropicals as a smaller specialty category that includes lychee nuts, rambutans, coconuts, jackfruit, passion fruit, cherimoya, dragon fruit and tamarillos. “Tropical itemization is hot right now and very trendy,” says John Savidan, produce director for Bristol Farms and Lazy Acres. “In my opinion, people get tired of the same old routine and want to try something different; variety is the spice of life, so to speak. Jackfruit is a super-hot trendy item, as well as mangosteens and dragon fruit.”
Last year, the Wall Street Journal named jackfruit as one of “the next hot trends in food,” owing to its appeal to vegetarians as a meat substitute. To make this fruit more approachable, Frieda’s Inc., Los Alamitos, CA, retails this item with a label with step-by-step instructions on how to cut open and prepare. In addition, Melissa’s/World Variety Produce will soon retail a fresh-cut, single-serve jackfruit pack. “Dragon fruit is gaining popularity in juicing, especially with passion fruit,” says Luis Cintron, director of sales and procurement for J&C Tropicals Inc., in Miami.
While the core tropically grown commodities are showing significant growth, Robinson Fresh’s Rossignoli says, “It’s interesting that highest year-over-year growth is actually happening in the smaller items, the items that only account for 2 percent of sales in the category. A few examples include passion fruit, with 53 percent year-over-year growth, coconuts with 14 percent and starfruit with 16 percent.”
Display Dilemmas & Solutions
Nowadays, the decision to group tropically grown fruits and vegetables in the same category or display is becoming more challenging for merchandising purposes, especially as some of these items become more popular. “We do our very best to merchandise tropical fruit together and out of refrigeration, but in many cases, it’s not always possible due to space. In general, fruit stays with fruit and roots stay on the veggie side. For us, it’s likely to have tropical fruits merchandised with bananas, even though we don’t categorize them as such; this makes for a fantastic-looking display,” says Savidan.
“The larger the tropical area is, the better the chances that the consumer will become interested in buying the products,” says HLB’s Ocampo. “An increase in both the number of items and size of the display will increase demand.”
Yet, some suppliers make good arguments for not merchandising tropicals together.
“Add mainstreamed produce like bananas and pineapples amid your tropical section and tropicals will lose potential selling points and marketing messages. Reserve an end cap for the tropicals that are mainstreamed,” says Brooks Tropicals’ Ostlund.
Turbana’s Rangel recommends tropicals be merchandised according to shopper demographic. “Mainstream tropical items should be merchandised separately, while items targeted to ethnic groups should be merchandised together. For example, tropical fruits such as pineapples, bananas and mangos that cater to a wider audience should be merchandised separately, while the roots and vegetables targeted to Hispanics and Asians should be merchandised separately. When large ethnic communities live nearby, the stores should merchandise the ethnic tropical on large and attractive displays to attract these consumers. Keep in mind these consumers are willing to drive long distances to find these products. Also, since these are staples for them, they are most likely purchased on a weekly basis.”
Displaying tropicals with mainstream non-tropical fruits and vegetables can be an effective register ringer. “In a recent study, placing mangos with stone fruit increased volume and dollars by 45 percent from previous years. Retailers are encouraged to merchandise mangos with seasonal fruit to pump up mango sales,” says the NMB’s Serna.
Dori Potts-Blonder, sales and marketing director for New Limeco LLC, in Princeton, FL, recommends displaying tropical roots next to potatoes for greater exposure. “Both don’t need refrigeration and both are cooked the same way — baked, boiled, mashed and fried.”
Remove Barriers to Purchase
Fresh-cuts, taste-sampling, education, price promotion and even touting locally grown are ways to get mainstream customers to try — and ethnic shoppers to buy — more tropicals. “We sell a lot of mangos fresh-cut, combined with other fruits like pineapple and kiwi,” says Richard Stiles, director of produce and floral for Redner’s Markets, a Reading, PA-based chain with 44 warehouse markets and 20 quick shoppes in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware. “Convenience is huge, and sales growth of items like this as a result are huge.”
A big push recently for J&C Tropicals is “finding a home” for No. 2 fruit, says Cintron. “These are aesthetically challenged fruit that would otherwise be thrown away. Instead, we’d like to push these to retail to include in fresh-cut fruit programs. It would cut down in cost and waste.”
“We conducted a demo recently with fried yucca and sold out of produce while standing there. It wasn’t a one-day wonder.”
— Doris Potts-Blonder, New Limeco
Taste-sampling is another great way to sell more tropicals. “We conducted a demo recently with fried yucca and sold out of product while standing there. It wasn’t a one-day wonder. The retailer, who normally ordered 12 cases to their distribution center, now orders full pallet quantities,” says Potts-Blonder. “Large displays, innovative marketing, trained and well-educated personnel sampling the product are all factors that combined, will exponentially increase the success of any demo,” says HLB’s Ocampo.
Bristol Farms and Lazy Acres have strong partnerships in place that help with demos and customer knowledge from a recipe standpoint and education. Educating customers about selection, ripening and usage removes the roadblock of unfamiliarity to purchase.
“Retailers leave money on the table by not taking advantage of suggestive and creative ways to merchandise and offer tropicals to their customers. One way to do this is signage. Signage, that is, that offers more than just the item’s name and price,” says Karen Caplan, chief executive and president of Frieda’s.
Brooks’ Ostlund agrees. “Sometimes a simple photo on signage can do the trick. For example, a solo papaya cut in half and shown with a salad in it. Starfruit slices front-and-center in your ready-to-go fruit salads says a lot. Passion fruit cut open with some being spooned on top of a dessert. Dragon fruit shown cut in half with a spoon digging some out.”
Themed mango displays are always a big hit, according to the NMB’s Serna. “For example, choose one of our original recipes from one of our tear pads and ask your employees to group the ingredients in-store. This will help shoppers pick up everything they need for the recipe. This strategy also leads to colorful displays that draw in shoppers by telling a story and offering a solution.”
Recipe ideas in-store, online and through social media not only encourage shoppers to try different ways of eating tropical, but to buy — and buy more. “Mango coleslaw, a French bean and mango salad and mango in a rice pilaf resonates, especially with Millennials who are eager to try new things,” says Southern Specialties’ Eagle.
Locally grown is an especially good hook nowadays to get customers interested in a new fruit. “We love to promote locally grown Florida tropical fruit, and see our retailers enjoy highlighting and rotating different items as the seasons come in and out. In the summer, there are dragon fruits, lychee and longans; with the cooler weather we have sapodilla and starfruits. These changes keep the display interesting and the consumer engaged,” says Ecoripe Tropical’s Holbik.
Historically, high prices have deterred purchases by customers not willing to take the risk to buy something they may not like. With greater supply, prices have decreased. “Customers love when we promote mangos 10 for $10,” says Redner’s Stiles. “For stores with a large Latino demographic, creating a large display of plantains upfront with an everyday low or loss leader price will draw customers in the store,” says New Limeco’s Potts-Blonder.
Price remains the basis for most promotions. “However, beyond just price there are seasonal opportunities to promote tropicals,” says Ron Cohen, vice president of sales for the Vision Import Group LLC, in River Edge, NJ.
Seasonal promotions span from when tropicals are most abundant to specific holiday themes. For example, mangos are abundant from late spring to summer, coconuts late summer to fall, dragon fruit from late summer to early fall and cherimoya from late winter through spring. “Promote mangos and papaya as salsa fixings for the Super Bowl; dragon fruit and coconuts for the Chinese New Year; passion fruit and strawberry papaya for Valentine’s Day; and jackfruit during Lent, when some people give up eating meat. Tropicals are also typical to promote for Mother’s Day,” says Melissa’s Schueller.