Legendary sweet onions help produce department sales sizzle.
Originally printed in the March 2021 issue of Produce Business.
As April’s showers bring May flowers, springtime brings shoppers seeking Vidalia onions. Throughout the winter and early spring, shoppers of the highly anticipated item often inquire of produce department workers when Vidalias will be available. Through proper display techniques, produce merchandisers can sell more of the legendary sweet onions.
“Consumers wait eight months for Vidalia onions to hit store shelves, and when they do, they bring a lot of excitement to the produce department,” observes John Shuman, president of Shuman Farms, Inc., Reidsville, GA. One of the key factors in maintaining that excitement for Vidalia onions is to connect customers with the story and the history of the unique item, advises Shuman. “We know that retailers’ produce teams are the first line of communication with consumers and ahead of this season, education is key,” he says.
When one thinks of Vidalias, they immediately think “spring is here.” Vidalia onions are a key ingredient for all things spring and summer, including grilling out, chicken and pasta salads, sandwiches on the beach, Memorial Day and Labor Day gatherings, casseroles for Mother’s Day and many other things. Vidalia onions are sold by retailers throughout the U.S. and Canada.
“The name Vidalia is now synonymous with a southern sweet onion,” observed Mychael Thomas, director of produce for W. Lee Flowers & Co., Inc., a Lake City, SC-based wholesale grocery company that supplies and operates IGA stores and independent supermarkets throughout the South. “If we just have Vidalia in there, you don’t necessarily have to say ‘sweet’, but we do. We can push it that way and sign the displays and put them on ad. Based on previous years, Vidalia and the sweet onion category still grows in sales for us.”
Vidalias constitute 62% of sweet onion sales, according to Troy Bland, chief executive officer of Bland Farms LLC, Glennville, GA. Typically, sweet onions are the second biggest selling onion, behind yellow onions. Sweet onions represent 25% of total onion dollar sales and 20.5% of unit sales, according to data from Nielsen Fresh.
“The Vidalia sweet onion is an onion that consumers wait for every year,” notes Bland. “When the Vidalia onion hits the grocery stores each April, it is an event. This is the onion that created the sweet onion category. People associate the word “Vidalia” with sweet nationwide.”
For the 52-week period ending Feb. 13, sweet onions dollar sales were $659 million, up 11% from the 2019-20’s $586 million, according to Nielsen. In unit sales, sweet onions were 410 million for 2020-21, up from 377 million the previous year and the highest since 2016-17.
“The Vidalia name is world-renowned and really sets the tone for the category,” says Mark Breimeister, sweet onion specialist for Potandon Produce LLC, Idaho Falls, ID. “Vidalias are the anchor of the sweet onion deal. It’s brand recognition. While the same seed may be grown in other regions, no region in sweet onions carries the weight of the Vidalia. I can’t think of a single retailer that doesn’t carry the Vidalia in season. They may carry sweet onions from various regions in other parts of the year but everyone has the Vidalia in season.”
In terms of produce department volume, the overall onion category is third, behind potatoes and tomatoes, but ahead of prepackaged salads and bell peppers. In terms of dollar sales, onions are fourth, following prepackaged salads, potatoes and tomatoes. The overall onion category is 3.6% of retail vegetable sales, up slightly from 2020, according to Nielsen.
“Vidalia onions are the most important sweet onion because it is widely known for its very mild flavor,” says Bob Stafford, manager of the Vidalia Onion Committee, based in Vidalia, GA. “There are a number of factors that make a Vidalia onion unique, such as shape, variety, identification and location. The advantages that Vidalias give to retailers and wholesalers is that they are available during the perfect time of year when the weather is warmer and consumers are gathered around a table with grilling treats.”
BIG RETAIL SELLER
Vidalias sell well at Greer’s Markets, a 28-store chain based in Mobile, AL, says Daniel Hulslander, produce category manager. “People are cooking more at home these days,” he says. “Vidalias have many uses in any dish you can think of.” Hulslander recommends merchandising Vidalias in mass displays promoting 3-pound bags in a grab-and-go display and cross merchandising sweet onions with complementary items.
“We recommend that retailers create secondary displays throughout the produce department and store that complement items such as bagged salads, peppers, mushrooms and potatoes.”— John Shuman, Shuman Farms
Vidalia onions work well with Georgia Grown promotions. “We are lucky in Georgia that we have some of the most renowned produce brands,” says Matthew Kulinski, deputy director of marketing for the Georgia Department of Agriculture. “Consumers will pay a premium for Georgia Grown produce, so they will always be in high demand.”
Vidalia onions enjoy high name recognition. “The Vidalia Onion is the most recognized sweet onion today,” says Mike Blume, vice president of sales and marketing for Keystone Fruit Marketing, Greencastle, PA, which began marketing Vidalias in the 1980s. “Because of the incredible recognition Vidalia Onions have, this allows an opportunity for retailers to capture additional sales if displayed properly and signed effectively.”
Vidalias are important because the variety’s mild and sweet flavor created the sweet onion category. “These sweet onions are always in high demand with consumers and boast a name recognition that spans the globe,” observes Bland.
In constructing displays, retailers should pay attention to product seasonality and consumer trends. “We like to recommend retailers focus on the importance of seasonality, spring and summer holidays, and consumer trends during the Vidalia season,” says Shuman Farms’ Shuman. In one example, Shuman Farms is seeing the topic of “meal planning” driving search inquires. With that knowledge, Shuman advises retailers to create meal solutions that include Vidalia onions and other items from the store such as peppers, mushrooms and tomatoes in displays.
FINDING NEW SALES
“To maximize sales opportunities and help consumers with their meal planning needs, retailers can use secondary display units and other promotional materials throughout the store to drive that incremental item in the basket,” says Shuman. “We recommend that retailers create secondary displays throughout the produce department and store that complement items such as bagged salads, peppers, mushrooms and potatoes as the versatility and mild flavor of a Vidalia onion allow it to be the perfect ingredient for any dish.”
Retailers can use anticipation to help generate enthusiasm for the arrival of Vidalias. To build excitement around the Vidalia season, Bland Farms offers signage and social media posts with a countdown to Vidalia season. “This builds up anticipation from consumers,” says Bland. “Building displays and putting Vidalia onions at the front of the produce department or even in front-of-store locations helps to kick off the season and let consumers know they are here.”
Vidalias are one of those produce items that can spur sales of other produce and non-produce products. Produce merchandisers should consider erecting secondary displays in the produce department as well as in other key parts of the store. “Based on our consumer research, we know that merchandising Vidalia onions throughout the produce department is important to maximize sales,” says Shuman. “Merchandising solutions to meet consumers’ needs are vital for success, and Vidalia onions are an important part of the equation.”
Due to consumers recognizing the Vidalia name, retailers should work to gain even more sales through merchandising Vidalias with other store items. “Being available during the spring and summer months is perfect for merchandising Vidalias with hamburgers, sausage, sandwiches, salads, and grilling,” says Keystone’s Blume. “Cross merchandising in the meat department, or with tomatoes, salads, as well as peppers and squash, always helps increase sales. The sales increase not only with Vidalias, but with all the other items as well.”
To help drive sales, Bland Farms recommends retailers erect displays in different areas of the stores. Sweet onions can be displayed near the meat department to interest shoppers looking to prepare a weekend cookout or adjacent to deli meat for those wanting to add onion slices to sandwiches. “When consumers go to buy meat for their cookout, they see the onions and are reminded that an onion would enhance their meal,” says Bland.
Volume purchasing of Vidalias means far lower overall costs for retailers, observes Potandon’s Breimeister. “There are so many truckloads coming out of the Southeast when the Vidalia season gets going,” he says. “If retailers aren’t purchasing a truckload or at least a half truckload, they are stuck paying a freight penalty to get them their product, hurting their margin vs their competitors, which may be buying truckload volume.”
With the trend in distributing nearly all produce by rapidly moving product to customers via forward-distribution facilities, Potandon distributes Vidalias to West Coast customers via a Los Angeles forward-distribution facility. This allows Potandon to distribute to nearly all its western customers for LTL delivery either overnight or second day, says Breimeister.