Cry me a river… of sales

The continued interest in home cooking and the growing popularity of ethnic dishes have increased the demand for all types of onions.

By Craig Levitt

Many consu­mers associate onions with tears rolling down their cheeks as they slice or dice one to give their meal a burst of flavor. However, contrary to popular belief, not all onions make you cry. They certainly aren’t making supermarkets cry as sales of all varieties of onions are thriving.

Observers cite several reasons for the category’s growth, including the increasing propensity to prepare meals at home as well as consumers’ continued desire to experiment with various ethnic cuisines. They also credit the numerous cooking shows.

“There is so much influence with TV food programming, and people are continually trying new recipes,” says Sherise Jones, director of marketing for the Parma, Idaho-based Idaho-Eastern Oregon Onion Committee (IEOOC). “Ethnic cooking is also helping quite a bit because onions are used in so many ethnic dishes.”

Recognizing that more and more people are using the television as a resource, and that a great deal of those doing so are women with families; the IEOOC has partnered with the Lifetime Network, creating an educational segment on the network’s morning program The Balancing Act that will communicate onions numerous health benefits. The segment will appear on the program in Sep­tember and November as well as on the IEOOC’s website.

“We will be also able to provide images and POS materials to retailers that say ‘as seen on Lifetime Network’,” says Jones. “It is just another way for retailers to connect with shoppers.”

Though the onion category is clearly one of the strongest in the produce aisle, it is not without its challenges. One of the biggest for retailers is keeping the stock fresh and appealing.

“Onions are used in so many dishes that sales are pretty much guaranteed to a degree,” says Ralph Schwartz, director of vendor management for Potandon Produce, based in Idaho Falls, Idaho. “That said, quality on shelf is key. We do everything we can to help our customers by shipping high-quality product with great shelf appeal.”

However, no matter how high the quality, like all produce, onions are susceptible to sprouting if they sit on the shelf too long. Onions also have a tendency to decay, so retailers must remain vigilant when tending to onion displays. Observers say in order to prevent these pitfalls a retailer must rotate stock on a regular basis.

Know your onions

Unfortunately, observers say many retailers struggle with training. In order to help, the Wada Farms Marketing Group, has developed a complete quality control guide for retailers to refer to when tending to their onion stock.

“We offer the quality control guide to produce managers so they can help produce associates recognize when they should move an item because it is no longer shelf stable,’ says Bob Meek, CEO for the Idaho Falls, Idaho-based company. “We want to help retailers have the freshest produce with the best appearance available.”

While educating retailers is obviously important, observers say it is imperative that growers, shippers and retailers educate consumers not only about the health benefits of onions, but the different varieties and their uses.

For example, different onions have different applications to achieve the best flavor profile. While a traditional sweet onion is good on a hamburger, a Spanish onion is going to be better for cooking because it has higher solids and can take the heat without losing its flavor.

“A lot of consumers are so unaware of which onion to use and when,” says Jones. “Once retailers do their part to educate consumers it will do two things: first it will help consumers understand the applications, but it will also communicate that the retailer knows what they are talking about; that they have educated themselves and they want consumers to have the best flavor in their menu items.”

Since onions are a staple, many believe that to maximize sales, they should be located centrally within the department and be provided with a good amount of space. While that idea is sound advice for the all the different varieties of onions, John Shuman, president of Shuman Produce,based in Reidsville, Ga., says that holds especially true for the fast growing sweet onion segment.

“If space allocation is undersized the sweet onion category will fail to grow, despite the high-quality and innovative packaging in place,” says Shuman. “We recommend increasing the display size and providing secondary displays during peak season.”

Sweet on sweet onions

Industry reports say that sweet onions represent about one-third of total onion sales, while the entire onion category accounts for more than 3.5% of total produce sales. The Vidalia Onion Committee claims consumers are eating at least one sweet onion a week, and sweet onion sales have risen each year for the past three years. Shuman expects the upward swing to continue.

“Because consumers perceive more value with sweet onions, there is more growth opportunity,” he says. “Particularly with red sweet onions.”

Much of the sweet onions popularity with consumers can be traced to its mild nature. Brian Kastick, president of Oso Sweet Onions, based in Charleston W. Va., says sweet onions are more digestible than other onions.

However, Kastick warns that retailers must beware of what he calls “imposter sweets.” He says that though these imposters are a little less costly and may be a little more value oriented, they are not real sweet onions. “A sweet onion is an onion you can cut without crying, it has low sulfur and high sugar and is really going to be a full flavored onion for cooking,” he says.

“With imposter sweets, what happens is, the customer who buys one is expecting a nice mild onion to cook with, use in a salad, etc.,” says Kastick. “When they get one of these other onions home and it is not what they expected, it really hurts the category.”

Conversely, he says when consumers go to the produce section and have a good experience with a sweet onion; that can really build the category and it then becomes a real tool for the retailer to drive higher gross sales and higher profit. “So if you are dedicated to sweet onions, do it right and provide shoppers with quality sweet onions, you are going to find you can really use the sweet onion category as a corner stone to the produce department,” says Kastick.

Observers say that sweet onions also lend themselves well to cross merchandising with produce items such as packaged salads, tomatoes, carrots, avocados and other related products such as salad toppings, crumbled bacon bits and onion ring batter.

Prepared foods also offer opportunities for onion sales. “Nowadays there are a lot of premade foods and ready-to-go items,” says Derek Rodgers, sales manager for Mel­bourne, Fla.-based Sweet Onion Trading Co. “People are also cooking more at home, so anyway you can make it easier for them, I see that as a good opportunity.

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