Fresh cherries have never been more popular and retailers are preparing for the short, yet profitable season.
By Elizabeth Louise Hatt
For many people cherries evoke images of ice cream sundaes piled high with whipped cream or a piping hot pie fresh out of the oven. With such a succulent role in the kitchen, some consumers may not view the cherry as a healthy snack item. However their anti-oxidant characteristics and health benefits have made cherries a popular item in shoppers’ carts.
This is obviously good news for retailers. Industry observers say the fruit’s growing popularity and high return make cherries a sweet topping to retailers’ bottom lines. “In the U.S. alone, it’s one of the highest per dollar sale items in the produce department, so when looking at sales per square foot, the cherry is in the top two or three items,” says Roger Pepperl, marketing director for Wenatchee, Wash.-based Stemilt Growers. “Cherries enjoy a lot of face time, a lot of promotion and they really dominate the produce department for the three months they are in season.”
Though the cherry season is relatively short, observers say it has staying power, adding that it is the late-season sales that are really catching retailers’ attention. “Late July and August sales are becoming increasingly important to retailers as Northwest growers focus their efforts on later-maturing varieties and increasing volume in these months,” says Suzanne Wolter, director of marketing for Selah, Wash.-based Rainier Fruit. “Although July 4 has been the industry target date for many years, progressive and intuitive retailers have been driving outstanding profits into the produce department by promoting the cherry category later than ever before.”
Columbia Marketing International (CMI), based in Wenatchee, Wash., is capitalizing on this trend with two promotional campaigns. The first during the early season, from June through July 4, featuring its’ “Summer Dreams” theme. The second, from July 5 through August carries the message, “Some things are too good to last forever,” which lets consumers know that cherries will be gone in September so they better stock up now. “There are a lot of new plantings of late season cherries that are now coming into production so post-July 4 cherry promotions are vital for moving the crop in a timely manner,” says Bob Mast, CMI’s vice president of marketing.
Launched last year, “Summer Dreams” is designed to get consumers in the mood for summer with new packaging that features a couple sitting on the beach snacking on cherries. “We want to appeal to customers emotionally. Rather than show a beauty shot, we want to get them in the mindset that cherries are a great food to snack on at the beach or at a sporting game—that they are a great grab and go item,” says Mast.
Targeting a new generation
Along with the slight shift in seasonal popularity, observers note a change in cherries’ target market with the focus turning from “empty nesters, the traditional cherry consumer, to older bustling families, millennials and start up families,” says Wolter, noting data collected from 2009 sales. “As a general rule, the millennial consumer’s shopping behavior reflects their belief in the value of health and wellness and functional foods. They also consider themselves cooking enthusiasts and are willing to spend more money for the highest quality ingredients.”
Oneonta Starr Ranch Growers’ new campaign, “cherrysnaQ,” is focused on promoting the health benefits, along with the portability, of cherries. “They are a very healthy piece of fruit and easy to eat on the go.” says Dan Wohlford, national sales representative for the Wenatchee, Wash.-based grower. “Our cherry bags will have new graphics and we’ll supply retailers with POS materials promoting our cherries.”
It is not enough that growers and distributors embark on aggressive campaigns to capture consumers attention. Retailers need to spotlight them as well and observers say POS materials and secondary displays and are powerful merchandising tools.
“Secondary displays creating additional shelf space and consumer sell-through are a valuable return on dollar investment,” says Wolter. “A [recent] Perishables Group study reported that Northwest cherry retailers that used secondary displays showed a 101% increase in weekly sales over their season average and a 141% lift in volume.”
Stemilt Growers encourage retailers to give their products extra exposure on the store floor with its grower-centric pop-up bins. “Knowing where food comes from is the big movement with consumers,” says Pepperl. “We put a lot of care into our cherries and we want to make sure that comes out in our merchandising.”
As a result of consumers’ growing desire to know where their food comes from, the market has seen significant growth in organic cherries. “The organic cherry segment has been growing about 15% to 20% a year,” says Mast. “The numbers have been small in the past so 20%?is minimal but it is continuing to grow, so we’ll see that number ramp up. For most retailers, I would say maybe 2% of the category is organic.”
Dark, sweet cherries still remain the leading variety in the market. However Rainier cherries are also gaining popularity and growing in volume as consumers attain a better awareness of the variety and its high sugar content, say growers. “They are very, very sweet—sometimes 20% more sugar than a dark, sweet cherry,” says Pepperl. “They are expensive to grow, usually retailing from anywhere between $2.99 to $6.99 a pound, but they are a great impulse item. They make up about 5% to 10% of the cherry category for retailers who are doing a really good job.”