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Citrus remains bright spot in winter lineup

Cold weather, fires and floods have impacted a number of crops this winter with transportation issues affecting virtually everything. However, one bright spot has been the winter citrus lineup. Various specialty citrus varieties as well as grapefruit, oranges and lemons are giving retailers options as they look for items to feature in their weekly ads.414-ORANGES-LANE-LATE

“The season is going very well,” said Trent Bishop of Lone Star Citrus, based in Edinburg, TX, talking both of Texas oranges and its celebrated sweet red grapefruit. “We had some unseasonably cold weather with cold bursts at Christmas and New Year’s. It got right to freezing but didn’t get any colder so there was no damage.”

Bishop characterized the market as “good” on grapefruit and “very good” for Texas oranges. The orange prices are reflective of California having a smaller navel crop than usual.

“The navel crop is smaller than last year, which was smaller than the previous year,” said Howard Nager, vice president of marketing for Sun Pacific Marketing Cooperative Inc., based in Pasadena, CA. He called Sun Pacific the largest independent navel orange grower in California and noted that while this year’s crop is small in volume, the individual fruit is trending on the bigger side with the majority being 72s and larger. “And it is exceptional quality. We think there will be lots of opportunities for promotion January, February and March.”

Nager said there is a very strong export market gearing up for promotions centered around Chinese New Year on February 16. With a good portion of the top-notch fruit headed for export, Nager said there will be lots of opportunities for promotions with bagged oranges in the domestic market of many different sizes and quantities.

Adam Cooper, vice president of marketing for The Wonderful Co., based in Los Angeles, concurred with the message that citrus offers options. “Except for lighter crop availability of navels and lemons across the industry, overall supply for all varieties has been good this season,” he said.

“Key promotional windows for citrus in the upcoming months include Super Bowl, Cinco de Mayo and Easter,” he added. “These are great time periods to promote lemons and limes with secondary displays and compelling price points. We now offer lemon and lime pop-up displays; perfect for secondary placements that are designed to drive trial and incremental volume.  We are also merchandising these items in various areas throughout the store including beverage aisles, seafood departments and at checkout.”

Bishop said Texas oranges and grapefruits would be available and promotable through April. “We are about halfway through the season. The quality is good and we have a lot of availability in the larger sizes.”

Though California’s navel orange volume is down, the specialty citrus seems to be taking up the slack. “Wonderful Halos mandarins had their fastest start to the season ever, with shipments up 12 percent compared to last year in the first nine weeks of sales,” said Cooper. “When looking at retail sales, Wonderful Halos mandarins also had their biggest Thanksgiving and Christmas weeks ever.”

Nager had a similar report about Sun Pacific’s easy peel entry in the mandarin market — Cuties. He said from late January until the middle of May some of the best mandarin varieties are picked and packed, which will further boost sales. He added that three-pound bags and five-pound boxes tend to be the most popular promotional items but there are other options. “Some retailers, looking for a particular price point, like the two-pound bags as well,” said Nager.

While navels are still king in California, Nager said the specialty citrus are gaining favor. He noted the tremendous sales gains mandarins have garnered in a relatively short time. He said most of the volume increases have come in only the last 10-15 years and indicated growers are still learning how to grow the crop to its best advantage. Sun Pacific is aiding sales with consumer promotions including radio advertising, billboard promotions and a presence on social media.

Cooper touted the consumer appeal of the mandarin, “From our experience with Halos, we know that almost 60 percent of mandarin consumers buy on impulse and Halos sales velocity doubles when showcased in a marquee display.”

Nager said there are some other specialty citrus items also gaining favor and singled out both Cara Cara oranges and heirloom navel varieties. “Cara Cara oranges are new for us this year,” he said. “They are exceptionally sweet with a lower acidity than navels and a pink flesh color.” Sun Pacific is marketing them in bulk as well as three-pound, high-graphic bags.

He added that the heirloom navel varieties are being offered by several California shippers as a premium item. “We are offering a ‘Vintage Sweet’ navel from 100-year-old groves. It is the best tasting fruit you can get… picked by citrus sommeliers,” Nager quipped.

The fruit is available from January through April, packed in a six-count tray with an overwrap or in a three-pound bag with a handle. Nager said it is a new category for Sun Pacific and allows retailers an opportunity to expand their citrus SKUs. “Everybody is looking for something new and different to bring to their customers.”

Joan Wickham, director of communications for Sunkist Growers, based in Valencia, CA, told The Produce News on Friday, Jan. 12, that California is in the peak of its season for navels as well as a number of specialty items. “This is the sweet spot of our winter season,” she added.

While navel oranges are an important item and definitely drive consumers to the category, Wickham said the many specialty citrus varieties are creating excitement and upping sales. She singled out mandarins as a very important factor. “I really think the increase in mandarins have piqued the interest in the category as a whole.”

Consumers, she added, are coming to the department looking for mandarins and navels and being introduced to blood oranges, Cara Cara navels, minneolas, tangelos and Meyer lemons. “The Meyer lemon isn’t new to the trade but many consumers are being introduced to it.”

Because of the growth of the category, Sunkist recommends that retailers merchandise it as such rather than using the various citrus SKUs as color blocks, which was prevalent several years ago. When varieties are merchandised together — following the lead of the apple category — Wickham said consumers can see these various offerings side by side, note the differences and try something new.

For the next several months, she said there will be plenty of promotional opportunities in the citrus category for navels and the specialty varieties. “Supplies are down a little bit this year but we still have promotable volumes,” she added.