Originally printed in the May 2020 issue of Produce Business.
Locked-down consumers reentering the shopping world will seek fresh flavors – cherries being a sweet favorite.
One of the only truly seasonal items left in the produce department, cherries, represent the ideal retail promotion since shoppers eagerly await the May-September season. Domestic availability is followed by imports from Chile between November and February. This second wave helps raise familiarity and gives retailers continued opportunities to build on demand.
“Now that cherries are here from Chile in the winter, they’re available for six to seven months. So although still seasonal, they’re not the mystery they used to be,” remarks Mac Riggan, director of marketing at Chelan Fresh Marketing, Chelan, WA. “Chile drives more awareness; I think they’ve helped the cherry category. When May comes around, there hasn’t been a huge gap but there is a definite seasonality to cherries, so retailers can hype them up.”
Mark Calder, sales representative for Primavera Marketing, Linden, CA, says cherries have the “ultimate seasonality.” “Cherries are the epitome of a seasonal item, which is always appealing because shoppers don’t see them often,” he observes.
Cherries remain a solid category for Morton Williams Supermarkets, headquartered in the Bronx, NY, according to produce director, Marc Goldman. “People get tired of apples and oranges; they’re looking for change. I think sales have grown but it’s very price related. If I can promote cherries and put them in an ad at a reasonable price, I can sell a lot more.”
Produced in California, Washington, British Columbia and imported from Chile, there are numerous cherry varieties supplied throughout the season. Unlike apples or pears, however, cherries are not typically marketed by type.
“There are three main varieties: dark-sweet, Rainier and TipTop cherries, which are marketed as Skylar Rae (a bi-colored cherry that is a Stemilt signature item),” explains Brianna Shales, senior marketing manager at Stemilt Growers, Wenatchee, WA. “Dark-sweet dominate the volume and sales while Rainier and Skylar Rae are in season for a brief time but are great to have in store to add incremental sales.”
Bing is the top dark-sweet variety produced across all growing regions, comments Danelle Huber, marketing specialist for CMI Orchards, Wenatchee, WA. “CMI also grows varieties like Chelan, Sweetheart, Skeena and Lapin to fill the gaps and extend the season,” she adds. CMI sold the Skylar Rae variety for the first time in 2019.
Chelan produces early and late cherries; predominately dark-sweets as well as Rainier and its own variety Orondo Ruby, which is slightly earlier than Rainier. “It’s like eating a Bing and Rainier cherry at same time,” says Riggan. “It’s got a really sweet, yet high acid, complex flavor.”
Morton Williams, which sources from Hunts Point Market, finds shoppers want primarily dark-sweet cherries. “We do some Rainier and we’ve done some Orondo Ruby but most people are still looking for dark-sweet cherries,” Goldman says.
Other varieties include Benton, Coral Champagne, Cowiche, Kordia, Regina and Tieton, plus several new dark-sweets are in development. “Our focus primarily is late-ripening varieties to extend the season further into late August/September,” reveals Stemilt’s Shales.
Early varieties are the objective for Primavera. “In North America, we’re doing our best to avoid overlapping, especially between states,” Calder explains. “California is a very high-cost producing state; it’s important for us to not compete with lower-cost regions.”
Cheery Grand and Cheery Treat are two new early varieties from International Fruit Genetics (IFG). “Cheery Grand is supposed to not need as many chill hours, which might make it easier for California,” notes Riggan.
Empty-nesters, those under 33 years and the health conscious are the key consumer groups for cherries, according to data compiled by Chicago-based Nielsen Perishables Group and Northwest Cherry Growers (NWCG), and provided by Sage Fruit Co., Yakima, WA.
As for provenance, cherry consumers are more concerned with quality. “I don’t think people pay attention to the origin,” states Chelan’s Riggan. “Consumers rely on retailers to make that decision. If cherries look good and are priced right, they’ll buy them.”
Consumers living in cherry-growing regions may take more notice, however. “Oregon, Idaho and Washington have very loyal Pacific Northwest cherry customers and enthusiasts,” says Chuck Sinks, president of sales and marketing for Sage Fruit. “California and Michigan are the same. Overall though, because the season is so short, consumers are just happy to get fresh, dark-sweet cherries.”
SUCCESS IN SALES
The growth in eating for health and wellness means global cherry retail sales continue to rise, notes Mark Zirkle, chief executive officer of Rainier Fruit Co., Selah, WA. “Transparency Market Research on the fresh cherry market shows the global market was valued at $47.3 billion in 2019, which is projected to rise at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 8.5%, to reach $107.2 billion by 2029,” he reveals.
One in four Americans purchase cherries annually, according to Nielsen and NWCG. Their data also shows that cherry customers are repeat customers, with a typical cherry buyer spending $28 more per grocery trip than non-buyers, while buyers of Rainier cherries spend $42 more per trip.
“The summer fruit season brings many fresh fruit buyers, and products that are in store for a limited time tend to have a quick turnover rate,” explains Sinks. “There are approximately 76 million sweet cherry buyers in the U.S., however, at least 24 million need a reminder to buy [according to Nielsen and NWCG]. Shoppers need to know it’s cherry season and that their window of availability is quick.”
Stores that have and build displays achieve the largest sales increase for cherries, claims Huber at CMI, who says the checkout, ice cream department and bakery are ideal cross merchandising locations. “According to NWCG’s 2019 annual report, cherries return more sales dollars per square foot of increase than all other produce items during the summer,” she specifies. “Capturing those impulse purchases is crucial.”
Nielsen and NWCG estimate that secondary displays drive 13.6% more lift in volume, and 22.4% more in dollars. “Retailers can capitalize on that by setting up a secondary display at the front door or near the checkout,” Sinks says. “Visibility is the key. Secondary displays, category size/location and ad frequency all play key roles in higher cherry sales.”
While the optimal display size depends on store footprint, suppliers agree the front and center of the produce department is the best location to trigger impulse purchases. “Consumers tend to think of summer as cherry season, and large eye-catching displays will help capture those consumer dollars,” says Zirkle at Rainier Fruit Co.
Stemilt’s Shales concurs, adding that bigger is better during peak promotions. “Retailers do well on cherries when they can align the ‘4Ps’ — Price, Product, Placement and Promotion — with the crop reality,” she says. “Cherries need lots of shelf space in a high-traffic area to drive that impulse purchase. They need a price that makes them attractive, but that also makes sense with the market. Product must be really high quality because cherries are purchased on impulse. Great flavor also drives repeat purchases. Lastly, promote cherries during the peak season.”
Displayed cherries should be rotated quickly to ensure quality, and preferably refrigerated to maximize shelf life, since cherries stored at room temperature will deteriorate much faster. “With proper storage, their shelf life can reach up to two weeks,” says Sinks at Sage Fruit. “Consumers, and retailers alike should avoid placing them near strong-scented foods in refrigeration, and only rinse cherries that are ready to be consumed.”
When it comes to starting promotions, retailers will need to align activities with volume. Usually, however, Stemilt suggests promoting California cherries from mid- to late-May, then late-June through July for Northwest cherries.
“July 4 is a big promotional time for cherries, and, typically, follows multiple promotions during July on dark-sweet cherries,” Shales states. “For Rainier cherries, July 11 is National Rainier Cherry Day in the U.S., and always a time for Rainier promotions.”
Displays, therefore, must adapt as the weeks progress. “At the beginning of the season when volume is lower, displays will be smaller and prices will be fairly high,” notes CMI’s Huber. “During the high-volume weeks, displays should grow and draw consumers’ attention to ensure consistent movement and sales.”
Thereafter, NWCG research indicates that core cherry buyers’ sales per trip increase 8% in the late season, making it important to remind consumers about July and August availability. “Loyal consumers, (two out of three) will purchase the bulk of their cherries during this time, and will average $101/store trip, according to NWCG,” says Zirkle at Rainier Fruit Co. “Those ‘late-season’ trips quickly generate about 40% of total cherry sales for the season.”
Whether retailers use circular ads or multiple displays, Sage Fruit believes promotions drive increased sales, whereas simple price drops fail to draw as much attention. Demos and ads, meanwhile, remain the best tactics, according to Chelan. “You’ve got to do a good job of hitting shoppers with information when they arrive in store,” Riggan says. “The best thing is to announce cherries via social media or freestanding insert flyers; having cherries on an ad price gets people’s attention. In-store radio has been a great way to keep cherries front of mind, too.”
Morton Williams tends to focus on ad promotions for cherries. “Being in Manhattan, our stores are very small, so we don’t have big displays for everything,” says Goldman. “But when I get a good price, I can promote cherries, make bigger displays and put up signage.”
In California, Primavera has had success cross merchandising cherries with blueberries. “In California, it’s important to work together with local fruits of a similar seasonal timing, and blueberries fit that bill,” Calder says. “We collaborate marketing efforts to a small degree with retailers to help our visibility.”
Cross merchandising cherries can encourage new uses. “Cross merchandising with other recipe and usage ideas such as oatmeal, meat marinades, sauces, jams, salsas and pies prove that cherries are an expandable category,” affirms Sinks at Sage Fruit.
Although supply and demand ultimately drive pricing, retailers should consider quality, too. The traditional price-point used to be 99 cents per pound, according to Riggan from Chelan, while now it seems to be $1.99 per pound. “But what really drives the cherry deal is fruit quality,” he affirms. “That’s more important than crop size or anything else because if you have good-eating cherries, people will buy them and come back for more. Then you see $2.49 or $2.99 per pound.”
The best price-point also depends on who retailers are trying to attract. Huber at CMI points out that consumers will pay more for a premium cherry, such as Skylar Rae, Daisy Girl Organics or a larger sized, higher-graded cherry. “Offering a premium cherry as well as a ‘value’ option will appeal to different demographics of consumers,” she proposes.
Of course, fruit sizing has a bearing on price, as well. “With regards to smaller sizes, the pricing is slightly less, which allows for better retail pricing,” says Sinks. “Budget-conscious retailers will generally take these sizes.”
Nonetheless, Sinks is seeing retailers shift towards larger-sized fruit. “Very few are carrying a two-size program, and when they do, one of the sizes is typically sold by the unit, i.e. UPC clamshell (instead of by the pound).”
A SALES EDUCATION
Education is another determining factor for sales, particularly around nutrition given consumer interest in healthy eating. “All education drives awareness because educated consumers more easily let go of their dollars when they know they’re getting something of value,” notes Chelan’s Riggan.
Cherries have various nutritional benefits worth highlighting. Stemilt advises that anti-inflammatory properties of cherries can help arthritis/gout sufferers, plus they contain melatonin, which can help to regulate sleep. Cherries are a good source of fiber, too, and lower on the glycemic index, which helps to regulate blood glucose levels. Additionally, cherries can protect against Alzheimer’s, ward off cancer, combat hypertension and stroke, and fight cardiovascular disease, reports CMI.
To encourage consumption amongst children, suppliers say kids love the flavor but parents should be reminded to remove the pits first. “Offer cherries as part of a nutritional breakfast or lunch, pit and freeze them as an alternative to a popsicle in the hot summer months, or just have cherries readily available as a quick snack right out of the refrigerator,” says Huber at CMI.
As for packaging, the newest trend is top-seal cartons; a plastic film on top of a clamshell. “We expect them to continue to be a bigger part of how cherries are sold because they reduce the amount of plastic used, they are UPC/scannable, which is huge for retail, and they can be automatically packed on our lines,” explains Stemilt’s Shales.
Nonetheless, suppliers agree that pouch bags remain very popular. In particular, they suit the impulsive nature of cherry purchasing thanks to the ability to add eye-catching designs and for consumers to see the quality.
“The pouch bag is an efficient, low-cost delivery vehicle for cherries, and it does a great job displaying fruit in stores, plus it’s easy for consumers to grab and take home,” points out Riggan from Chelan.
Morton Williams mainly retails cherries in pouches, with Goldman noting they are ideal for shoppers to pick up. “The high-graphic pouches have really helped to accelerate sales simply by capturing the visibility of the consumer,” adds Primavera’s Calder.