Imported sweet onions help retailers continue sales streak during winter.
Originally printed in the November 2021 issue of Produce Business.
During the winter when domestic choices are slim, imported sweet onions play a big role in keeping retail supermarkets competitive. Shippers say retailers should pay as much attention to sweet onions shipped from Peru and Mexico as they do to sweet onions other times of the year.
“With the season so short with Vidalias, customers really want sweet onions all year now and are glad they’re available in the imported deal,” says Sal Selletto, produce manager at the Super Foodtown of Sea Girt, NJ, a part of the Middletown, NJ, Food Circus/Foodtown.
“Carrying imported sweets is important because people get used to the Vidalias and like sweet onions. The Peruvian sweet onion is a nice alternative for those who think only Vidalias are sweet.”
As the U.S. storage onion deal provides supplies throughout the year, in general, most onions transported by boat from Peru and by truck from Mexico are fresh onions. Sweet onions dominate the imported onions deal.
“Imported sweet onions play a significant role in what we do here at Bland Farms, as they allow us to maintain a year-round supply,” says Troy Bland, chief executive officer of Bland Farms LLC, based in Glennville, GA. “Our Peruvian sweet onions do very well during the fall and winter months, as they are versatile and an essential part of the holiday season.”
Available just in time for the holiday season, premium sweets are an important part of the Bland Farms’ sweet onion program, he adds. “We continue to see growth in sales and great success in merchandising fall and winter sweet onions.”
Imported onions are important for consistent retail offerings. “With rare exception, once winter rolls around, imports are the only place to go to get good quality, true sweet onions with the flat appearance that the consumer recognizes as a sweet onion,” says Mark Breimeister, sweet onion specialist with Potandon Produce LLC, based in Idaho Falls, ID.
The key benefit of imported onions is to provide steady supply. “To maintain a year-round supply, carrying imported onions is a necessity,” says Jeff Brechler, salesman with Little Bear Produce, Edinburg, TX.
While some western U.S. sweets ship through Thanksgiving, retailers need to move to imports from Peru and Mexico to provide a true and mild, short-day sweet onion, he says.
“To complete a 12-month cycle of sweets, you need those two producing areas,” says Brechler. “The consumer is accustomed to a lighter color and thinner-skinned, short-day mild onion. When we start throwing in and trying to introduce intermediate or long-day onions, it can become confusing because they start to look like the Spanish onions out there that are very pungent.”
Matthew Gideon, sweet onion commodity manager for Keystone Fruit Marketing, Greencastle, PA, says imported sweet onions are important as they are supplied during the holidays.
“Consumers want sweet onions 12 months a year and the winter imported season is important to close the calendar. With various fall and winter holiday promotions, sweet onions are a must-have for retailers. With a year-round supply of sweet onions, this allows consistent sales,” he adds. “Of course, the Vidalia, Texas and Walla Wallas carry brand recognition, but the Peruvian and Mexican sweet onions continue to carry the sales momentum through the year.”
During the winter, Peru and Mexico are the leading suppliers of imported onions to the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Mexico represents 62.3% of fresh onion imports to the U.S., with Peru at 23.7%.
“Imported sweet onions come in second in volume behind conventional yellow onions for sales of bulb type onions,” says Breimeister. “One thing is for sure, onions in general are a high volume and margin item at retail. The imported sweets follow suit, and often bring a higher dollar ring at the cash register, translating to more revenue for the retailer.”
Though not considered the “star” of the sweet onions deal, imported onions carry their value.
“Despite the fact that consumers look for Vidalia sweet onions come spring and summer, the reality is that sweet onions do well year-round, thanks to their versatility, making them a popular staple for a variety of dishes,” says Walt Dasher, vice president of G&R Farms, Glennville, GA. “That versatility is what helps drive volume and sales in the category, making sweet onions the category leader.”
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
During the winter, some merchandisers don’t give winter onions the space or the same level of marketing as they do the summer domestic sweet onions.
“Often, retailers seem to put the sweet onion on the back shelf during the fall and winter, compared to running ads and large displays of the well-known Vidalia and Walla Walla onions,” says Breimeister. “I think this is a mistake. The Peruvian Green Giant sweet onion brings in just as much margin as the domestic sweet onions and more gross revenue with its higher per-pound ring at the cash register.”
Proper merchandising is crucial. “As merchandising is key in any produce department to keep the customer moving throughout the department and store, onions are not any different,” observes Brandon Bentley, category business manager-vegetables for Tops Markets, based in Williamsville, NY. “Adding these to a display around the store may remind the customer they missed something in the produce department as well. Often, I miss something as I am shopping and the displays around the store give me that helpful reminder to stay out of the doghouse when I get home for forgetting that one item.”
Retailers can merchandise imported onions in ways to improve sales. “We have found that consumers crave the sweet flavor that our onions provide year-round,” says Bland. “We feel that it is important to build up excitement and anticipation around each season to keep shoppers interested.”
Bland builds anticipation through social media and newsletter updates. “When our premium sweet onions are on ad, consumers need to be able to easily find them,” says Bland. “When they are properly labeled and displayed, consumers will come in and buy them.”
Cross promotions help sales. Sweet onions merchandise well with potatoes, sweet peppers, bell peppers, winter salads and various winter soups that need that sweet onion flavor.
“It [winter onions] allows them to cross promote other items in the produce department and allows for consistent supply of sweet onions,” says Gideon. “It is a great time to promote. We have seen increased sales when our customers cross promote, promote our flavor profile, and promote on the fringes of the holiday seasons. This allows for consumers to identify with a brand and increases pull-throughs to ensure sales all during the winter season.”
As with other produce items, retailers should build significant displays to attract shoppers. “At retail, large displays still drive volume,” says Breimeister. “Big, bold displays featuring sweet onions and cross-merchandising them with both salads and in the meat department show their versatility.”
Although onions are a staple item, they still require proper merchandising and promotion like every item. “The best ways to merchandise sweet onions in the fall and winter are the same in the summer,” says G&R Farms’ Dasher. “Get them up front in your category display, carry bulk and bag, and make sure your display is sizable.”
“It’s one thing to write an ad, it’s another thing to make sure all consumers respond to that ad in store,” Dasher adds. “Shopping habits are changing and not every consumer picks up a store flyer or reviews the ad. It’s really critical that signage and displays are used as merchandising tools to supplement ads, to really get the best lift and drive ROI for those ads.”
There are many ways retailers can merchandise sweet onions. Use high graphic packaging and supplied-provided point-of-sale material, Bland recommends.
“Signage for premium sweet onions at the retail level is very important,” says Bland. “We recommend putting our 40-pound display bins in different areas of the stores to help drive sales. For example, one could put our sweet onions by the meat department for consumers that are preparing for their weekend cookout or tailgating experience.”
Bland also offers cross-merchandising opportunities with its Vidalia brand items, including its Sweet Onion Petals, Blossom Sauce and Batter Mix.
Bagging can help increase sales, notes Little Bear’s Brechler. “Switch to 100% of sweets in bags,” he recommends. “That way, there are no errors at the register when ringing up.”
Little Bear has done well selling its sweet onions in bags. When COVID-19 hit, some retailers dropped bulk onions and merchandised only through bags. The grab-and-go nature of bags allowed a convenience for the shoppers who didn’t want to spend a lot of time in the supermarkets before curbside blew up, he says.
“The 3- and 5-pound bags on sweets have really grown for us,” says Brechler. “Bulk is coming back, but the bags are still maintaining their lift from the COVID days.”
Potandon has also experienced stronger bagged sales. “We’ve also seen demand increase through the pandemic for bagged product,” says Breimeister. “We offer a very nice high graphic Green Giant bag for retail that gets more and more interest each year.”
Shippers are optimistic the category will see continued increasing sales. “Consumption has been a steady increase for many years,” says Gideon. “As consumers continue to cook more at home, this will only increase the consumption of sweet onions. Sweet onions are popular eaten fresh as well as cooked. Everyone in the U.S. consumes sweet onions. We see continued steady growth and increased sales of consumer packs.”
Community service also helps sweet onion marketers. Since 2001, Shuman Farms, Inc.’s Healthy Family Project initiative has raised more than $7 million and provided 12 million meals to families in need across the US. “We are an annual partner of Feeding America, supporting the fight against food insecurity in America, donating a minimum of 100,000 meals each year to help the organization provide for the 1 in 9 American (and 1 in 6 children) facing food insecurity,” says John Shuman, president and chief executive officer. “For the past 13 years, we have distributed special, pink RealSweet onion bags, display bins, and POS to support breast cancer awareness each October. Since 2009, we have donated more than $110,000 to those working hard to find a cure.
Community service also helps sweet onion marketers. Since 2001, Shuman Farms, Inc.’s Healthy Family Project initiative has raised more than $7 million and provided 12 million meals to families in need across the US.
“We are an annual partner of Feeding America, supporting the fight against food insecurity in America, donating a minimum of 100,000 meals each year to help the organization provide for the 1 in 9 American (and 1 in 6 children) facing food insecurity,” says John Shuman, president and chief executive officer. “For the past 13 years, we have distributed special, pink RealSweet onion bags, display bins, and POS to support breast cancer awareness each October.”
Since 2009, Shuman Farms has donated more than $110,000 to those working hard to find a cure.
“We have focused on programs that align with our values and offer community-driven support, so consumers can vote with their wallets and know that their purchases make a difference in their communities,” says Dasher. “Through our community-centric programs like Seasons of Giving, we’ve achieved double-digit sales lifts that also provide dollars back to community organizations of the retailers’ choice.”