Originally printed in the January 2021 issue of Produce Business.
As the list of must-have offerings grows and more and more tropical fruits find their way into the mainstream, this ever-evolving category promises plenty of opportunity for increased revenue by satisfying consumer demand for ethnic favorites, new discoveries and flavorful fun.
Core offerings of mainstream tropical fruits continue to expand, and today’s well-stocked tropical fruits section is bigger and more diverse than ever. In addition to multiple varieties of bananas, pineapples and coconuts, must-haves include mangos, papayas, dragon fruit, rambutan, lychees and kiwis, with all but a few of the core items cited now available year-round.
According to a sampling of comments from retailers and suppliers, the nice-to-have list of additional items to add to the tropical fruits section these days are passion fruit, jackfruit, cherimoya, kiwano, soursop and mangosteen, with jackfruit and young coconuts fast making their way to essentials lists.
“Retailers can really have fun with the tropical fruit category, as there is such a wide selection of possibilities for additional revenue growth and differentiation in the produce department,” says Marc Holbik, president of Medley, FL-based Ecoripe Tropicals, Inc.
Find the Right Tropicals Mix for Your Stores
While retailers and suppliers largely agree on the current must-have offerings, several emphasize the ideal mix of tropical fruits varies from store to store.
Marc Goldman is produce director for Morton Williams Supermarkets, headquartered in The Bronx, NY, with 14 Manhattan stores, a store in The Bronx and one in New Jersey. Says Goldman, “What items we offer and how we group and merchandise them depends on the store and the demographic of people who shop there. I have very good produce managers who know what types of people come in their stores and what people are asking for. The variety we offer depends on the store.”
“Matching store demographics to the correct tropical items is very important and can give impressive results,” adds Ecoripe’s Holbik. “While tropicals have gone more mainstream, there are many Americans who are immigrants or have family from tropical cultures where these fruits are an important part of their cuisine. By identifying and matching the right items with this demand, tropical fruits can be a great way to develop a loyal customer base.”
Display Tropicals for Maximum Impact
Once the core product mix is fine-tuned for each store, tropicals are typically best displayed together in their own section, augmented by secondary displays within and beyond the produce department.
“As simple as it sounds, the most important tip is to maintain a fully stocked tropical fruit display,” says Bil Goldfield, director, corporate communications for Dole Food Co., based in Charlotte, NC. “A robust, always-stocked and maintained display in the middle or back of the produce department is one of the most effective ways to pull a steady stream of shoppers into the department and raise the bar for all produce.”
He adds, “Secondary, in-store displays have also been proven to capture impulse buyers, and we suggest mixing it up with both seasonal and meal- and recipe-based displays to keep it fresh and interesting.”
“Most of the time, our tropical products are grouped together, but we do leverage every opportunity to include endcaps, bin displays and secondary displays throughout our stores,” says Maria Brous, director of communications for Publix, based in Lakeland, FL.
Cindy Sherman, director of marketing for Los Alamitos, CA-based Frieda’s Specialty Produce, suggests seasonal variations to keep in-store displays interesting. “To be relevant, you need to make sure your assortment and merchandising reflect how consumers are shopping and what they’re thinking about during certain times of the year.
“There are items that are definitely year-round, but they may benefit from being presented differently at various times of the year. For example, young coconuts do well when merchandised up-front and on ice during the summer months and merchandised with more health and wellness items like turmeric and ginger in the winter months.”
“Most important,” maintains Holbik, “it is key to schedule promotions when these are at peak volumes, to help dispel the association of high pricing with tropical fruit. Retailers can balance pricing with volume goals to maintain high profitability in this category.”
Educate Your Customers and Staff
“It doesn’t matter where you live. Anybody can become a foodie by following blogs and influencers,” notes Ronnie Cohen, principal at Vision Import Group, LLC, of Hackensack, NJ. “As a result, many consumers are fairly savvy nowadays. They do their homework, and they know what they’re buying.”
For customers less knowledgeable about tropical fruits, retailers can promote sales through educational efforts using a variety of channels, including their own produce teams.
“Today’s guest is more informed and adventurous when it comes to grocery shopping, and many are looking for a new and unique taste experience.”— Kevin Thomerson, Lowes Foods
“Beyond introducing new varieties, produce managers can work with suppliers to introduce their shoppers to new tropicals and help existing users discover new ways to enjoy and purchase more of the fruit they already love,” says Dole’s Goldfield. “Examples include recipes, usage applications, serving suggestions and educational materials and other collateral that explain the extraordinary health benefits of these popular fruits.
Offering samples and giving produce managers advice on information to convey to consumers also goes a long way. According to Melissa Hartmann de Barros, director of communications for HLB Specialties in Fort Lauderdale, FL, “The flavor profile and eating instructions are vital for an item to start out successfully and continue as a program.”
“Ultimately, it comes down to making items approachable, not just with branding and packaging, but also by educating the customer on how to use the product,” says Frieda’s Sherman. “We believe that if your store staff is educated about and comfortable with tropicals, then they will be more likely to suggest their favorites to shoppers.”
Frieda’s offers on-site staff training to help retailers with customer education efforts. “We have been fortunate enough to have Frieda’s come on-site and conduct training sessions with our produce manager team,” says Kevin Thomerson, director of produce and floral merchandising for Winston-Salem, NC-based Lowes Foods, LLC. “In addition, I encourage our teams to taste and become familiar with the unique offerings that ship. This allows them to share first-hand the taste profile and their personal experience with an item.”
“We believe it is very important to educate and provide free samples to all produce department workers, so they can become knowledgeable and enthusiastic and transmit this to customers,” agrees Ecoripe’s Holbik.
“At Publix, our associates are the single greatest resource of point-of-sale material anyone can ask for,” says Brous. “We spend the necessary time to educate our associates with product knowledge and the importance of customer service. Mentoring associates so they can communicate with our customers is our best approach.”
Sell the Benefits
As part of the education process, retailers are encouraged to promote tropical fruits’ many benefits of interest and value to the broadest range of customers.
“There are definitely different segments of the population and new generations coming in,” observes Cohen from Vision Import Group. “Some people are super price-conscious. Others might be health-conscious and want organic. Some people take on an agenda for fair trade or saving the rain forest or some other movement.
“If I’m a retailer, I’m going to find out what’s important to my customers, and that’s what I’m going to give them.”
“Health benefits will get the initial sale, but flavor is key for repeat sales,” says Robert Schueller, director of public relations for Melissa’s/World Variety Produce in Los Angeles, CA. “Convenience is also big on many items in making it easier to enjoy products — for example, small packs of jackfruit pods, easy-open coconuts you don’t need a tool to enjoy and pre-scored quick-crack coconuts.”
“At Frieda’s,” says Sherman, “our focus is getting consumers to try a tropical fruit that’s new to them. As consumers try new tropicals, they are likely to get addicted, both to new favorites and discovering more. What’s interesting is that we’re seeing the propensity to try new fruits across all demographics. Centennials through Boomers all want to add a little excitement to their day.”
“Something interesting we noticed in 2020 was retailers’ willingness to open their shelves to new tropical items,” notes Hartmann de Barros of HLB Specialties. “The pandemic and consequential quarantine has awakened consumers’ curiosity to try new foods, and to our delight, rambutan, as well as yellow and white dragon fruit, enjoyed a surge in sales. We see a particular interest in clamshell items that include some further information on the item, such as eating and handling instructions as well as nutritional benefits.”
Let it Grow
The tropical fruits category is expected to continue growing, with new products, new varieties of established products and new convenience features contributing to the ongoing expansion. Keeping the category on the leading edge will be an ongoing process.
“The tropical fruit category is now one of the fastest growing specialty categories,” says Melissa’s Schueller. “We’ve seen an average 12% category growth since 2019 — definitely an exciting trend.”
“Over the past few years, social media and social networking have been the biggest trend-drivers, which allows for adventurous eating and product discovery,” says Sherman. “However, this also means that something that was exotic last year is suddenly ubiquitous, which is why it’s important to maintain a balance between the comfortable and the exotic. We expect that even though customers will continue not to travel, their desire to explore unknown flavors will fuel a demand for new and exciting options in the produce department.”
“In my opinion, the sky’s the limit with the tropical fruit category,” says Lowes Foods’ Thomerson. “Today’s guest is more informed and adventurous when it comes to grocery shopping, and many are looking for a new and unique taste experience.
“Tropical fruits are the perfect solution.”