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    FRESH FOOD: Citrus Category Report: Sweet spot

    A solid connection to health, as well as an increased emphasis on specialty fruit, should help citrus turn in a strong peak season.

    The year's juiciest, most fragrant citrus fruits are now making their way to market. That's good news for retailers, as citrus is a solid produce department mainstay that's taken some hard hits of late, from lingering "high-sugar" concerns to the bludgeoning that this year's hurricanes dealt to some of the nation's most important growing areas.

    Word is, the outlook is sweet. In the category's favor are a continuing emphasis on and acceptance of specialty citrus, as well as extensive marketing and promotion programs being pushed by the country's major growing communities.

    As any produce merchandiser knows, citrus's sweet spot is now through March, the ideal time to showcase a bounty of oranges, lemons, grapefruit, tangerines, and specialty varieties.

    However, while the appeal of citrus-inspired household cleaning and body care products have been all the rage recently, the stalwart orange and its first cousins have, through no fault of their own, lost juice with consumers. Some fruit fans have turned their attention to a newer generation of fresh fruit options, while others have turned their backs on what they see as high-sugar fruits, in tandem with high-protein diets.

    On average, citrus represents about 5 percent of the produce department's total sales annually, according to Robert Kirch, director of procurement for Indianapolis-based distributor Caito Foods Service, Inc. "With that said," Kirch continues, "it's very important that we have an effective go-to-market strategy that drives sales and profitability. We align ourselves with vendor partners that have the best value proposition for our retailers.

    "Branded programs are especially important," adds Kirch, "because they help build a connection with the end consumer. Our vendor partners that have branded programs need to have a regional and national perspective on how to market the category."

    Oranges are typically so abundant that they're often taken for granted. But for a number of significant reasons, the orange must never be shortchanged. While money may not grow on trees, oranges most certainly do, and few commodities are more vulnerable to volatile weather conditions than they are.

    Supply challenges from Florida, following a spate of hurricanes that spread diseases and blew fruit off trees, "has been a significant shock to the industry," says Paul Koukos, Visalia, Calif.-based citrus operations manager for A. Duda & Sons, a leading grower, shipper, and marketer of fresh citrus and fresh-cut and processed fruits and vegetables.

    The timing of Hurricane Wilma -- which struck Florida on Oct. 24 -- was especially devastating for citrus growers, who were in full production with crops in all stages of maturity, notes Ray Gilmer, director of public affairs for the Orlando-based Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association (FFVA). Wilma resulted in at least $1 billion in damage to the state's agriculture industry.

    The resulting squeeze on crops came to light during the second week of December, when the Florida Agricultural Statistics Service said the Sunshine State was looking at production of 186 million boxes of citrus—a 16 percent drop from the Oct. 12 estimate of 222 million boxes. And though this year's hurricane-hammered crop is nonetheless expected to exceed last year's by about 8 percent, it remains 34 percent below the state's longer-term 280-million-box average.

    This season also will see smaller-than-expected sizes of Florida oranges, whose early, mid-season, and Valencia sizes are projected to be the smallest in a decade. Consequently the price of orange juice futures rose to the highest level in seven years in mid-December, after the agriculture department's Florida crop report indicated that the damage was worse than analysts expected.

    Hard-hit crops

    While oranges were severely affected by the storms, the grapefruit crop was the hardest hit, having lost 8 million 85-pound boxes in a season that was expected to produce 16 million boxes, instead of the 24-million-box earlier estimate -- a whopping 65 percent below the state's normal 45-million-box average.

    The state's agriculture officials are also scrambling to curtail the already severe toll that citrus canker -- a disease that destroys orange crops and is spread by wind -- is taking on the yield. Last year's four hurricanes are blamed for spreading the disease, but many South Florida residents who moved farther north in the state added to the problem by transplanting citrus to their new homes. The results have been astonishingly troubling, with more than 7 million commercial trees destroyed and nearly 850,000 residential trees suffering the same fate.

    FFVA's Gilmer says while the tighter supplies as a result of hurricane damage and citrus canker will ultimately result in a 50 percent smaller crop, "the quality of what's there will be good, but there obviously just won't be quite as much of it."

    In early December FFVA's research and education foundation distributed relief funds to assist farm workers affected during the recent hurricanes. More than $204,000 in donations was collected through a nationwide retail promotion. Twenty-five cents from each carton of specially marked Florida oranges sold at participating retailers was donated to the Hurricane Farm Workers Relief Fund.

    Wal-Mart has been an especially visible partner in the Florida citrus growers' relief efforts and has stepped up admirably to help farmers by promoting locally grown Florida produce, adds Gilmer.

    In the weeks before this season's crops arrived, the nation's largest retailer began posting signs in the produce sections of its Florida stores, letting customers know that while the fruits and vegetables might look a little different this year, buying Florida produce is helping the state's farmers get back on their feet.

    The Lakeland, Fla.-based Department of Citrus (FDOC) has also been spearheading efforts to keep consumer interest high. An integral part of that mission is its new Web site, www.floridajuice.com, launched last year as a resource for consumers, retailers, and health care professionals.

    "FloridaJuice.com not only educates consumers about the many health-and-wellness benefits of Florida citrus, but also introduces them to new ways of incorporating citrus into their lives," says Dan Gunter, FDOC's executive director. The site also focuses on children through a special section dedicated to coloring pages, kid-friendly recipes, and activities that teachers can conduct in the classroom.

    The organization, with support from News America, is also conducting an ongoing retail promotion launched in November that runs through the end of this month, featuring advertising tie-ins and public relations efforts.

    On an even more hopeful note, Duda's Koukos says: "The growth of the soft citrus easy-peeler seedless category has been tremendous, and looks very promising for the future. The acceptance of specialty citrus also seems to be influencing sales positively, particularly the easy-peeler seedless fruit, tangelos, blood oranges, and Meyer lemons." Koukos points to these varieties' unique characteristics, which can provide different flavor profiles in cooking. As such, he says, "We're now working to include more of the special citrus items in our product offering."

    Unique specialty tastes

    To be sure, the more exotic citrus specialties -- Moro oranges, Cara Cara navels, and Minneola tangerines, for example -- which come into season throughout the late autumn and winter months and continue through early spring, provide a new and unique taste experience for consumers, as well as new sales opportunities for retailers.

    Sunkist, the world's oldest and largest citrus marketing cooperative, is at the forefront of retail support efforts to encourage consumers to experience specialty citrus during the peak season.

    "The key is to educate and build trial," says the Sherman Oaks, Calif.-based co-op's v.p. of marketing, Robert Verloop. To that end, he says, Sunkist is offering to retailers colorful POP signage, new corrugate displays, in-store demonstrations, and a special in-pack sampler, which is a value-added consumer program that delivers Specialty Sensation citrus samples in bags of Sunkist navel oranges. For the program a "specialty citrus of the month" is wrapped in custom-printed tissue wrap that educates consumers about the specialty variety's characteristics, seasonality, and nutritional values, along with providing a recipe.

    Sunkist packaging is undergoing a broader makeover this year, with close-up photography of citrus varieties to add color and excitement to the produce department, notes Verloop. All Sunkist packaging will continue to reflect country-of-origin demarcation, he adds, and will be designed "to increase efficiencies in handling and transportation."

    The new packaging includes bags and clamshells, gift boxes for special occasions, promotional-themed packaging designed with families in mind, and packaging that makes it easy for retailers to create displays that draw attention.

    Sunkist recently played a key role in building awareness and demand for California-grown products during a recent six-day trade mission to China from Nov. 14 to Nov. 20 with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. In visits to Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong, the 80-member delegation, which included "California Grown" signatory groups representing the citrus, grape, strawberry, tree fruit, and wine industries, touted the quality, safety, and diversity of California-grown commodities in an effort to help build market share and export sales.

    "The citrus industry, as one of 29 'Buy California' program participants, is a highly visible part of the campaign," says Scott Horsfall, c.e.o. of the Buy California Marketing Agreement, noting Sunkist's "particularly aggressive role in terms of using our logo and program tie-ins, which we're very pleased to see."

    The tour received extensive media coverage in China as well as right here at home, with exposure including a virtual photo essay published by The Sacramento Bee, in which Sunkist played a starring role.

    Not to be outdone, the Lone Star State of Texas is also working aggressively to create demand for its premium citrus products, notes Lucy Garcia, executive director of TexaSweet Citrus Marketing, Inc., which represents the domestic marketing and promotional interests of growers and shippers of fresh Texas grapefruit and oranges.

    Garcia says high quality and impressive size mark this season's crop. "Texas is in a great position to gain new consumers by not only meeting those needs, but also by producing a fruit with consistently high Brix levels as well as intense red color throughout the majority of our season," she adds.

    In November the Mission, Texas-based citrus marketing company christened a new image and a slogan, "Live the Sweet Life," developed to tie into the company's renowned Rio Star Grapefruit product.

    The purpose of revamped logos, promotional materials, and a Web site was designed to give a more consistent and prominent message, says Garcia, detailing TexaSweet's efforts over the summer, revolving around consumer awareness and brand building.

    "We are fortunate enough to have a wonderfully traditional product in our Rio Star Grapefruit. We have found that our grapefruit sparks so many life memories simply by scent and flavor," says Garcia. "This season TexaSweet is reaching out to consumers through an intense public relations push to generate the buzz about our new take on life and how citrus fits into making it so sweet."

    The slogan also fits into the retail side of citrus promotion. New informational materials were developed with retailer and consumer needs in mind, including new POP kits consisting of four channel strips featuring nutrition, handling, and preparation information.

    The commodity marketing group sent category development tools, such as a two-year promotional planner featuring merchandising tips and holiday planning information, as well as a back-room poster for quick category reference, to retailers across the nation to help push out the slogan to consumers.

    "The provision of information is highly beneficial for retailers, as they don't have to go out of their way to create POP that fits their offerings," says Garcia. "We conducted surveys with retailers to make sure we were giving them something they could use in their stores that looks typical of their own POP offerings.

    "We want retailers to look to us as a resource in whatever they may need to grow or support their citrus category. We can provide them with research as well as POP and consumer information. We are a tool, and recognize their need for getting consumers information in a friendly format."

    The new campaign will also be launched at trade events such as the International Hotel & Restaurant Show in New York, as well as consumer venues including marathons, women's shows, and food and wine events across the nation. This season TexaSweet will reach out to consumers with a steady stream of e-mail newsletters, media placements, and activities planned to build awareness through school programs and partnerships with culinary programs.

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