Winter supply of specialty melons can also encourage shoppers to buy and eat more.
Biting into a sweet slice of watermelon isn’t the first thing shoppers think of when there’s snow outside. But consider the popularity and pitch of New Year’s resolutions in January. Nearly two-thirds (62%) of Americans who responded to a Forbes Health/OnePoll survey in November 2022, said improving physical and mental health are equally important, while weight loss (37%) and improved diet (33%) were among top resolutions. To keep these health-oriented resolutions, many shoppers seek out fresh produce like melons.
“In our climate in California, melon sales are strong all year,” says Daniel Bell, director of produce for Grocery Outlet, a 440-plus store chain headquartered in Emeryville, CA. “There’s no seasonal fall off in sales, and we continue to sell watermelons out of bins. In the past, there were sometimes quality issues in terms of brix in winter melon, but this has become better.”
Melons ranked fourth in the top fruit categories in 2022, behind berries, apples and grapes, and at $3.4 billion in retail sales, up 10.2% in dollar sales. Yet, looking at the winter month of last December alone, the melon category fell to seventh, ringing up only $123 million in sales, with bananas, mandarins and avocados taking the fourth through sixth position, according to the International Fresh Produce Association’s December 2022-released report, Produce Closes Out the Year on a High Note, Setting New Records, by 210 Analytics.
CONSUMER DEMAND TRENDS: CHICKEN & EGG
Melon consumption has historically dropped off in the winter simply because the fruit wasn’t available, says Miguel Suarez, president of MAS Melons & Grapes, LLC, in Rio Rico, AZ. “Melons, especially watermelon, used to be only a summer produce item. Now, there is a 12-month supply.”
Consumer demand for melons during the winter has indeed changed significantly over the last decade, adds Tom Ferguson, vice president of East Coast sales for the Classic Fruit Company, based in Deerfield Beach, FL. “Seed varieties that have become mainstream provide much more consistent internal quality characteristics with higher brix levels and flavor profile.”
Flavor drives consumption, adds Chris Veillon, chief marketing officer for Pure Flavor, a family of greenhouse fruit and vegetable growers headquartered in Leamington, Ontario. “If a melon is bland or off-color, it won’t be purchased again. Consistency in greenhouse-grown fruits and vegetables, as well as year-round availability, are a positive attribute for both the consumer and the retailer.”
A winter supply of flavorful specialty melons can also encourage shoppers to buy and eat more.
“Summer-tasting melons such as the Charentais and Mini Watermelons, along with Gaya and Korean, are now available during the non-domestic season from November to April. The Charentais is one of our top specialties. Although supply is not as strong as we see during the domestic season, we have seen great growth in the wintertime for these imported variety melons,” says Robert Schueller, director of public relations at Melissa’s Produce, in Vernon, CA.
Gaya melons, developed in Japan, is a white-fleshed melon with a thin ivory-colored skin with occasional green streaks. Oval-shaped Korean melons have deep yellow ridges on the outside and juicy white flesh with seed-lined cavities on the inside.
Two more factors are now driving sales of winter melons.
“First, sizing with these varieties focuses primarily on larger fruit that is conducive to retail, fresh-cut and foodservice needs. Third, many East Coast retailers now prefer to promote melons during the winter months compared to the summertime because of the higher freight costs incurred shipping from the West Coast,” says Classic Fruit’s Ferguson.
Overall, most of the melon consumed in the U.S. comes from domestic production. However, supply gaps in the winter have seen melon imports increase from an average share of less than 10% in the 1980s to almost 40% over the last five years, according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service’s Fruit and Tree Nuts Outlook, published in March 2023. Specifically, U.S. imports of watermelons arrive mostly from Mexico, with greater volumes coming from Guatemala and Honduras. These two Central American countries ship most of the U.S.’s cantaloupe and honeydew imports, with lower volumes from Mexico. The Caribbean, namely the Dominican Republic, and Canada, due to greenhouse production are other sources for winter melon imports.
MEXICO. Mexico provides the lion’s share of Pacific Trellis Fruit’s signature Dulcinea PureHeart mini seedless watermelon and full-size SugarDaddy brand year-round, according to Howard Nager, director of marketing and business development for the Los Angeles, CA-based company. “Production moves throughout Mexico to keep up with demand. December and January find us in the Los Mochis region of Sinaloa. Production is coming from Colima from January to March and then move to Hermosillo in April. All this fruit will be available to pick up in Nogales.”
SunFed will start importing watermelon from mid-December to early March from Sinaloa, says Felix Peralta, senior director of production for the Rio Rico, AZ-headquartered company. “We are focusing on improving yields and providing strong quality for this winter season. Peak volume is expected from mid-January to mid-February.”
Mexican-grown Fair Trade Certified watermelons are available from major supplier, the Giumarra Companies, headquartered in Los Angeles, CA.
“Traditional seedless and personal size watermelons always have a great presence in the winter season,” says Rachel Syngo, in new business development for Melon 1, in Punta Gorda, FL. “The QC teams at retail want and need to see a decent brix metric in the winter months to ensure the quality is still the same as in the summer. Because fewer watermelons are grown in the winter, the overall cost is higher than in the spring and summer. Since more watermelons are imported in the winter, this creates an additional freight cost with shipping containers in addition to traditional truck freight.”
Cantaloupe, honeydew, and Hami melons will start shipping in January through early to mid-April from Super Starr International, based in Pharr, TX. “We had a great season last year and based on retailer demand, we’ve planted to ensure an even better season this winter with promotable volumes,” says Lance Peterson, president and third-generation farmer of the company, which also grows and exports papayas.
Peterson adds, “With farming operations located in Colima, there is less travel time for the product to make it to retailers. This allows the fruit to remain on the vine for a longer time and continue to grow and ripen. This ensures the best quality and flavor for consumers.”
Korean melon peaks out of Mexico in November and December and again in March, while Mexican-grown Gaya melon peaks from November to January, according to Melissa’s Schueller.
THE CARIBBEAN. The Dominican Republic is where Melissa’s Produce imports Charentais melon year-round. Peak availability is between November and April. Popular in Europe, these globe-shaped fruits have a gray-green rind with dark sutures and bright orange flesh inside.
“The Charentais is a melon that definitely benefits by sampling,” says Pascal Lui, produce merchandiser for Gelson’s, a 27-store chain based in Encino, CA.
CENTRAL AMERICA. After a couple of years of successful production trials, Pacific Trellis Fruit is expanding in Guatemala this winter to source its PureHeart mini-seedless watermelon. Production will begin in early January and run into April. The product will be shipped to both the East Coast, i.e., Port Everglades, Miami, and the West Coast, i.e., Ports at Hueneme and Oxnard.
“While watermelon continues to drive the melon category representing close to 70% of dollar sales according to IRI/Freshlook data, we are also seeing an uptick in consumer’s preference for mini-seedless watermelon, with a 2-4% increase in pounds purchased over the past 52 weeks,” says Nager.
Classic Fruit’s seedless watermelon program from Guatemala has significantly expanded over the last few years, according to Ferguson. “We are shipping carton and binned seedless watermelons to our East Coast ports from early January through the end of March.”
Earlier this year, Classic Fruit and Firebaugh, CA-located Westside Produce formed an Alliance to strengthen their ability to provide melons 52 years a year. Facility updates and new varieties have played a key role. For example, a new packing facility was built in Champerico, Guatemala, where the companies import most of the watermelon and honeydew. They will also offer specialty imported melons such as Dino, Hami and Yellow Melons this season.
“The demand for these melons has grown each year as internal characteristics sometimes exceed one of the traditional melons that are grown. For example, some customers prefer a Dino melon, when available, over a honeydew due to its higher sugar content and flavor profile. Production is intentionally limited to keep these varieties as a niche item for higher-end produce departments, restaurants or country clubs,” says Ferguson.
Hamis are the top-selling melons at Super King Markets, an eight-store chain based in Los Angeles, CA. “We’ll bring in up to three loads a week,” says Eddie Avila, director of produce.
CANADA. Pure Flavor has introduced a trio of greenhouse-grown melons. These are the Solara Mini Galia Melons and Alonna Canary Melons in 2022 and Oronai Sweet Charentais Melons in the fall of 2023.
“Consistency of supply is the biggest value proposition that a retailer is looking for in addition to flavor. This is a strong selling point in greenhouse-grown melon as they are grown in a controlled environment to ensure consistency in quality, size and more importantly flavor,” says Veillon. “The program is available year-round with a heavier concentration from September to June to avoid mass production during the summer months when field-grown melons are in season and abundance.”
COLD WEATHER PROMOTION
Winter holidays always offer the opportunity to sell more of everything, says Pedro Balderrama, sales account manager for SunFed. “Since the volume is less in the winter it provides a good opportunity to market melons at a great price.”
In the run-up to Christmas and New Year, “typically see increased demand beginning the first week of December,” says Classic Fruit’s Ferguson. “Promotional opportunities run from late November through Christmas. Valentine’s Day traditionally sees higher demand in the foodservice and fresh-cut sectors. Then, promotional volumes begin again in late February through early May.”
There’s also a slight uptick in melon demand in January when everyone springs into a healthy eating mode and things spike again for the Easter holiday, adds Pacific Trellis’ Nager. Since melon displays are usually smaller this time of year, “you see a higher percentage of the mini-seedless watermelon due to space constraints.”
Demand for melon is often dictated by the weather in the selling region, says Melon 1’s Syngo. “Areas with a warmer winter often sell more watermelons. If regions with an exceptionally cold winter would like to sell more, then merchandise it with cut fruit nearby, and/or near the entrance of a store so consumers know it is available. We get requests daily from consumers asking for watermelon in major markets where they don’t think it’s available. They are often surprised when we send them a list of retailers in their area where we are actively shipping.”