Sweet on onions

Retailers have to be vigilant in keeping their sweet onion offerings genuine to keep customers satisfied.

By Elizabeth Louise Hatt

The sweet onion category has presented a new challenge to retailers. Sales are up, the category is consistently expanding and the cook-at-home trend has made sweet onions a mainstay on consumers’ shopping lists.

However, among the bins of sweet onions decorating produce aisles across the nation hide imposters. Some growers and distributors are mislabeling non-sweet varieties to capitalize on the premium they can charge for sweets, leaving consumers disappointed—and hurting retailers’ reputations.

“This rise of imposter sweet onions only serves to erode the category through customer confusion and dissatisfaction,” says John Shuman, president of Shuman Produce, based in Reidsville, Ga. “These varieties do not share the same sweet and mild flavor profile or the familiar flat, granex shape of a true sweet onion, and research has shown that this is how consumers distinguish a sweet onion.”

The National Onion Labs’ (NOL) extensive research into consumer purchasing decisions around sweet onions support Shuman’s opinion. The organization’s results consistently find that the top two reasons people buy sweet onions is for flavor and appropriate use—only 11% and 2% of people chose price and size, respectively.

Industry observers say that without an industry-wide continuous improvement program in place, it becomes the retailer’s responsibility to make sure they are stocking true sweet onions. “Retailers are sometimes buying them because someone is telling them that they are sweet but they are not providing proof or documentation,” says Lauren Dees-Mizelle, consumer products advocate for the NOL, based in Collins, Ga.

The NOL recommends retailers ask growers a number of questions about their definition of sweet onions and testing methods. David Burrell, president and founder of the NOL, says if consumers are paying a premium for a sweet onion, it should meet their expectations, and in order to know what that standard is, retailers need to make sure the growers they are purchasing sweet onions from have a similar definition of what a sweet onion should be.

The definition proposed by the NOL says that “sweet onions should have mild and pleasant flavors that leave an impression of sweetness. It should be free from strong, bitter, metallic, pungent and other off-flavors; that’s what consumers are looking for when they are shopping for sweet onions.”

Since there is no industry-wide definition, some growers, such as Oso Sweet, based in Charleston, W. Va., adhere to the one stated by NOL. “I would love to see a specific definition adopted,” says Brian Kastick, Oso Sweet’s president. “It would protect the consumer and retailers could really grow the category because there would be greater consistency and quality in their stores.”

Other growers have taken it upon themselves to create a standard based on their own testing. Bland Farms, for example, operates an in-house pungency lab in order to continuously monitor the pungency of sweet onions, in addition to routinely sending samples to third-party laboratories to verify its in-house results.

“Occasionally there are isolated areas of fields that, for whatever reason, have different soil chemistry which can lead to producing a more pungent onion,” says Richard Pazderski, director of sales and marketing for Glennville, Ga.-based Bland Farms. “Therefore, we grid test all of our fields each year and our agronomy team customizes a fertilization and nutrient program for each of them individually.”

Testing at field level is a key component. Variations at field level can significantly influence onion flavor so a random selection taken from the bins is insufficient, says NOL’s Dees-Mizelle. “You can have sweet onions in some fields and extra sweet in others so if you are just testing a random sample of 10, you are not getting a true picture.”

More growers are jumping on board and incorporating testing into their process to reassure retailers that their products are up to standard. The Sweet Onion Trading Co. is one of them. This year, the Melbourne, Fla.-based grower will have all its fields tested by the NOL to certify the sweetness of its product. “Ours won’t just say ‘sweet onions’ on the package, we’ll have the certification to back it up,” says Barry Rogers, president. “Taste is the biggest driver for the higher quality sweet onion category. Shoppers prefer a sweet onion  for salads, topped on soups, hors d’oeuvres and minimally cooked and served as a tasty garnish.”

With or without testing, the sweet onion category is continuously growing. According to the NOL, sweet onions account for one-third of onion sales—about three million consumers weekly. The versatility and appealing flavor profile has helped popularity grow among consumers who are spending more time cooking at home and experimenting with new dishes, say observers.

Last year, the Idaho-Eastern Oregon Onion Committee shipped a record volume of Spanish Sweet Onions, says Sherise Jones, marketing director for the Parma, Idaho-based committee. “Consumers see high value in the commodity because of the wide range of cooking applications and their storage ability. There is an increased awareness and consideration on the part of consumers for the flavor profile in recipes prepared at home. Spanish Sweets are a cost-effective way of adding flavor.

According to observers maintaining the category’s sales growth is easy, retailers simply need to stock sweet onions all year long. Sweet onions harvest in the spring months so domestic crops are ready in the spring and imports are available during the winter.

“Our RealSweet Peruvian sweet onions share that granex shape with Vidalia and reinforce the consistency in consumers’ minds,” says Shuman. “This assists retailers in maintaining sales in the category through the association made in the minds of consumers. This will keep them coming back for the premium quality and flavor they come to expect from sweet onions.”

The seasonality of the category also provides retailers with natural marketing periods. For example retailers have available to them Chilean Oso Sweets, Texas Oso Sweets, Vidalia Onions and Walla Walla Onions among others. “Each one of these periods gives the retailer a chance to change their display up, build a new one, run an ad and grab customers attention,” says Oso Sweet’s Kastick. “As long as they always have a true sweet onion in the store and really push the display and packaging, people will buy with their eyes.”

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