A bright future is in store as productivity increases and popularity continues on an upswing.
The sweet onion category continues on its upward trajectory, according to the National Onion Association based in Greeley, CO. This growing demand allows retailers to supply consumers a fresh product during winter months.
“Since we originated the wintertime sweet onion back in 1989, the category has become a staple of the produce aisle,” explains Mark Breimeister, sales director with Saven Corporation/Oso Sweet Company located in Savannah, GA. “Back in the early 1990s, we asked retailers to slot in sweet onions during the winter months. Now the product is expected to be on the shelves year-round.”
For a period of time, Keystone Fruit Marketing located in Greencastle, PA, saw the available supply of authentic sweet onions lagging demand. “Today, a reliable steady supply of year-round authentic sweet onions is available to meet increasing demand,” says Marty Kamer, president.
Consumer demand is what drove Shuman Produce, located in Reidsville, GA, to enter the import industry nearly 20 years ago. “Retailers can capitalize on sweet onions by keeping them on shelves all year long — as research shows produce baskets containing sweet onions are roughly 40 percent larger than those that do not,” says John Shuman, president.
Retailers benefit by supplying consumers what they need. “Having sweet onions during the winter months means extra sales and profit for the department,” explains Keith Cox, produce category manager at K-VA-T Food Stores, which has more than 130 units and is based in Abingdon, VA. “Keeping customers engaged with sweet onions during the winter months only means they will have the option to make a decision on what onion they purchase depending on the use or recipe that requires onions.”
Sweet onions are by far the most requested onion in the produce department at George’s Market at Dreshertown, an upscale independent grocer located in Dresher, PA. “They account for more than 50 percent of all onion sales in our produce department. When domestic sweet onions are not available, imported sweet onions become essential,” says Nancy Grace, produce manager.
“We continue to educate retailers on the demand for sweet onions during the winter months,” says Troy Bland, chief operating officer with Bland Farms, located in Glennville, GA. “This is crucial, so they dedicate shelf space to imported sweet onions.”
Los Angeles-based Progressive Produce LLC provides customers with a way to “bring the summer back” during the winter months through its Mayan Sweet Onion from Peru. “These onions stand out from the crowd with their flat, disc-like shape and sweet, mild flavors,” explains Scott Leimkuhler, director of sales. “Mayan Sweet Onions are perfect to use fresh on salads and sandwiches. Just peel, slice and enjoy.”
A Positive Outlook
Looking ahead to the upcoming season, the outlook is bright for the growers. “Acreage has grown for us yearly and is usually increased about 10 percent per year,” says Breimeister of Saven Corporation/Oso Sweet Company.
Sweet Onion Trading, LLC (Grant, FL) forecasts its early season in Peru is up 20 percent over last season. “Late season is too early to tell,” says Barry Rogers, sales manager with the company.
Creative marketing can also help increase production. “We have been able to increase volume — especially when we cross-promote with other product ideas,” says Bland.
“Peru provides the only premium quality sweet onion to the market this time of year and offers retailers a consistent product to most effectively capture category sales in the fall and winter.”
— John Shuman, Shuman Produce
Shuman credits the weather conditions for yielding a favorable Peruvian crop this year, with product ranging in size from medium to jumbo to colossal. “U.S. imports of Peruvian sweet onions hit a record level last growing season, and Shuman Produce is poised for another great shipping year with high-quality product,” explains Shuman.
Kamer with Keystone Fruit Marketing reports the company’s sweet onion crop in Peru is coming in nicely with adequate volume and size for its core business. “Demand and high-quality sweet onions from Peru are expected to be excellent throughout the fall and winter selling season,” he says.
A good quality product coincides with the country it comes from. “That’s why we have chosen the countries we have to grow our product,” says Bland. “Sweet onions from U.S. growing regions have been in storage for a long period of time, especially in the winter months, and importing sweet onions allows us to offer fresh onions.”
Breimeister with Saven Corporation/Oso Sweet Company estimates more than 90 percent of imported product comes from Peru. “Over the years, Peru developed the infrastructure to grow very nice, consistent product,” he says.
Retailers gain significant benefits working with a reliable grower. “Following Vidalia onion season, Peru provides the only premium quality sweet onion to the market this time of year and offers retailers a consistent product to most effectively capture category sales in the fall and winter,” says Shuman.
Bland Farms exports from Peru to the U.S. from mid-September to mid-February, and from Mexico from the beginning of February to the beginning of April. “The export of Peruvian and Mexican sweet onions into the U.S. ties in with the beginning and ending of our Vidalia season,” says Bland. “This, in turn, has our facility running year-round providing sweet onions to our retailers and consumers all months of the year.”
Shuman Produce grows sweet onions in Peru and Mexico as a part of its year-round RealSweet onion program. “Peru has a longer growing season as compared to anywhere in the U.S.; therefore, we typically harvest our onions from August to January each year,” says Shuman. “RealSweet Peruvian sweet onions are available in retail outlets from September to February.”
Along with Peru and Mexico during their seasons, Sweet Onion Trading, LLC also imports from Honduras from January to March. “Importing always has a large investment in time and resources and timing is everything,” says Rogers.
Saven Corporation/Oso Sweet Company primarily grows and imports Oso Sweet Onions from Peru and has a program set up for weekly arrivals of fresh onions from mid-August into the first weeks of March. “We do not bring in a huge slug and store them for packing later. Instead, we grow in some alternate areas and stagger our harvest for consistently high quality,” says Breimeister.
Growers remain positive about working with more countries to import sweet onions. “Keystone Fruit Marketing has ongoing research and development projects in a variety of other countries throughout South and Central America, and even Europe and others,” reports Kamer. “Future availability of authentic sweet onions from these emerging markets is yet to be determined.”
“We tried different countries in Central and South America,” explains Bland. “We will continue to try different areas to bring retail partners the freshest sweet onions year-round.”
Know Your Onion
Retailers always benefit from providing the consumer with a good quality product. Kamer of Keystone Fruit Marketing warns one of the biggest challenges is to meet consumer expectations. “Even if the year-round sweet onions have become a mainstay in the department, there still continues to be lots of imposters, or onions labeled ‘sweet’ but failing to meet consumer expectations. These destroy consumer confidence and ultimately slow the sales and profits for everyone,” he says.
Breimeister with Saven Corporation/Oso Sweet Company agrees. “There are offerings from other sources that may pass a lab test but fail to deliver on taste and appearance, thus leading to a temptation to buy a cheaper item but in the end, these lesser products only turn off the consumer and cost repeat sales. We take pride in only putting our Oso Sweet label on truly sweet onions that deliver consistently to the consumer.”
“Even if the year-round sweet onions have become a mainstay in the department, there still continues to be lots of imposters, or onions labeled ‘sweet’ but failing to meet consumer expectations.”
— Marty Kramer, Keystone Fruit Marketing
Understanding distinct characteristics of the sweet onion adds clarity for both consumer and retailer. “We are constantly trying to educate consumers and retailers about the value of purchasing and selling a flat, true short-day variety sweet onion versus selling long-day domestic product which rarely has the same taste and appeal,” explains Breimeister. “The consumer sees the flat onion as the more mild and truly sweet product.”
Suppliers such as Progressive Produce say by importing sweet onions from Peru to all four corners of the U.S., the company can pack product fresh and deliver it to any customers within a day.“This helps ensure both quality and sticker rates to guarantee accurate rings at store level,” says Leimkuhler of Progressive Produce.
“Imported sweet onions are retailer- and consumer-friendly,” explains Grace of George’s Market. “They are lower in water content, making them cleaner with less shrink.”
To keep consumers informed about product availability, marketers remain engaged. Shuman Produce works through social media outlets to promote its year-round sweet onion availability. “Educating consumers on the differences between sweet onion options this time of year is also very important,” explains Shuman.
Bland Farms works to educate consumers about sweet onions by pointing out they’re not just for salads anymore. “They can substitute the pungent, very strong conventional onion with a sweet-smelling, sweet-tasting onion in any recipe,” says Bland.
Packaging And Promotion
Retailers have several methods to capture shoppers’ attention and make the sale. “Many consumers do not realize the similarities of Peruvian Sweet Onions and Vidalia Sweet Onions,” explains Bland. “We provide promotional materials to retailers and also work with retailers on coupon programs to cross-promote Bland Farms and Vidalia brand products related to sweet onions.”
Keystone Fruit Marketing offers innovative packaging including usage tips, recipes and nutrition details. “Growers, shippers and retailers continuously strive to develop state-of-the-art packaging and displays to catch the eye of the consumer, at the same time providing information on nutrition and utilizing products to boost sales,” says Kamer.
“Providing recipes through retailer websites or on bin boxes is a great way to increase sales and educate the consumers,” says Bland.
Shuman Produce provides all RealSweet sweet onions in a variety of packs and sizes to meet the needs of all demographics. “Our bagged products act as effective merchandising tools with high-quality graphic product imagery and great seasonal recipes,” says Shuman.
Imported sweet onions offer countless opportunities for the retailer to promote due to their diversity. “Many retailers strive to take advantage of cross-merchandising by strategically placing onions and products that can be utilized with sweet onions,” offers Kamer.
Shuman Produce advises stores to merchandise sweet onions alongside additional products to create an easy meal, which raises the ring at the register. “Retailers should also consider displays outside of the produce department to maximize sales during fall months when grilling and tailgating are on the top of consumer’s minds,” says Shuman. “RealSweet sweet onions make the perfect pairing for burgers, sausage and chicken on the grill.”
“Retailers should continue to promote with secondary displays during the winter months for extra sales and profit, since sweet onions are generally available year-round, and the consumer doesn’t see the gaps in supplies like in years past,” explains Cox of K-VA-T Food Stores.
Product placement is crucial. “Endcaps, standalones, value-added product offerings, multi-size strategies and consumer bagged displays offer consumers multiple buying options and ensure sales lift,” says Kamer of Keystone Fruit Marketing.
Offering a bagged versus bulk option increases customer choice, which leads to more sales. “Due to increased demand for sweet onions, many retailers found it advantageous to carry bulk or loose jumbo sweet onions as well as a consumer bag of medium sweet onions,” offers Kamer.
Shuman Produce offers both bag and bulk product year-round. “This choice best meets the needs of consumers looking for a premium sweet onion with the flat granex shape and mild flavor profile,” says Shuman.
Quality also plays an important role in winter promotion. “Retailers should promote and advertise much like they do in the spring and summer months, because the quality of imported sweet onions has been very good over the past few years and has been a value for the consumer,” explains Cox of K-VA-T.