Strawberries — They're kind of a big deal
It’s hard to overstate the importance of strawberries to a grocery retailer.
“A good strawberry season can increase sales and profits, and a bad strawberry season can really kind of leave you scrambling to find other opportunities for sales, this last year being a pretty good example of that,” said Mike Roberts, director of produce operations for Springdale, Ark.-based Harps Food Stores.
“Starting in about late June, the strawberry crop had a lot of issues all the way through I think about the end of August, and we had to scramble on our end because they weren’t really promotable in ads as much, the sales were down a little bit," Roberts said. "We had to go out and find other avenues to drive sales because the strawberries weren’t there. It’s a huge, huge part of your business.”
Sixty-five percent of U.S. households bought strawberries in 2019, a higher percentage than all other fruits save bananas, apples and grapes.
Strawberries accounted for nearly $2.7 billion in sales in 2019, with unit sales at 842 million, according to the United Fresh Produce Association’s year-end Fresh Facts on Retail report.
The berry category overall continues to enjoy growth, but strawberries remain the heavyweight.
With that kind of demand, there is really no bad time to promote strawberries, Roberts said.
Rob Ybarra, director of produce for Thibodaux, La.-based Rouses Markets, conveyed a similar sentiment.
“During the California season we promote frequently,” Ybarra said. “With us being in Louisiana, we do great local business with Louisiana berries – so sweet and pretty. During the Florida season, which is typically early February through May, we do some great promotions as well. In summary, whenever, wherever we can, we will promote strawberries. Customers love them and this item alone can grow the top-line sales for produce.”
Dave Rhodes, director of produce and floral operations for Findlay, Ohio-based Fresh Encounter, also noted that – as long as Mother Nature cooperates – strawberries are a regular in ads and promotions.
“That’s a category that you need to make sure you always price correctly with your competitors on a week-in, week-out basis,” Rhodes said. “Yeah, there’s going to be weeks that you get beat in ad, but on your everyday business and when you run in the ad, you want to make sure you’re right in the area.”
He noted that having strawberries, blueberries, raspberries or blackberries in the ad regularly tends to benefit all of them because a deal on one of the items may bring shoppers in proximity of all of them.
“I might have strawberries on the ad one week and put bush berries as the produce manager’s special –in-store special, not a deep discount, still making money, but enough to keep them moving – and then maybe the next week the bush berries are in the ad and I’ll have the strawberries as the produce manager’s special, or we’ll run them on a one-day ad or something like that,” Rhodes said.
Jeff Cady, director of produce and floral for Williamsville, N.Y.-based Tops Friendly Markets, also described strawberries as an item the retailer promotes frequently, with SKUs including 1-pound clamshells and 2-pound clamshells, conventional and organic, greenhouse grown and locally grown.
Of course, there are certain prime times when sales are especially prone to spike.
“The best times where demand is ingrained in the consumer is Valentine’s Day, Easter, Mother’s Day, Memorial Day, Father’s Day and 4th of July,” Cady said. “Here in the Northeast, we find that we get a big lift when we exit the Florida market at the end of March (moving target based on weather) and go out west. The difference in quality is noticeable – no fault to Florida as it is the end of their season and that is somewhat to be expected.”
Jared Waterfield, marketing director for Norfolk, Va.-based Military Produce Group, noted that April and May are times to promote and take advantage of a window with less competition from other fruits.
“April and May are really the optimal times as the plants are young and produce amazing flavor and quality in the spring,” Waterfield said. “Also, there is not much other fruit competing for the consumers’ dollars that time of year as stone fruit has typically not started, melons are just beginning, and grapes are in transition from Chile to Mexico and California.”
The popular kid
Michael Schutt, senior category manager for produce and floral for West Sacramento, Calif.-based Raley’s, noted that berries overall have been flourishing in recent years.
“The berry category growth has been tremendous over the last handful of years due in large part to the expansion and promotion of bigger consumer packs in the heart of the season,” Schutt said. “During the spring and summer months, when the producing regions are in our backyard, we will promote 1-pound, 2-pound and even 3-pound vehicles – sometimes even the occasional half-flat sale.”
Louis Scagnelli, director of produce and floral for Alpha 1 Marketing, an affiliate of White Plains, N.Y. -based Krasdale Foods, said strawberry movement is generally steady barring extreme changes in cost.
“We promote strawberries as much as we can,” Scagnelli said. “When costs are low and quality is projected to be good, I will always try to get them into the advertising mix. Strawberries are a consumer favorite and a great item to help drive sales.”
Care, handling and minimizing shrink
Given the delicacy of strawberries compared to some other produce items, following best practices for the commodity is essential.
“Proper rotation, keeping them in refrigeration as long as possible, and making sure you have the proper amount on display for the amount of turns you are getting from them,” said Kevin Byers, senior produce merchandiser for Seattle-based PCC Community Markets. “If they are being displayed out of refrigeration, you must ensure that the display is right size and that they are being pulled and put in refrigeration during non-business hours. Staff should be facing the display throughout the day, and while doing so, checking every container to ensure the highest quality berry is in each container.”
Rhodes seconded the recommendation on refrigeration.
“If you don’t have them on refrigeration, you better make sure you have a good price that’s going to turn them,” Rhodes said. “You’ve got to turn those bad boys.”
Brian Dey, senior merchandiser and natural stores coordinator for Ephrata, Pa.-based Four Seasons Produce, gave an example of when to forego the conventional refrigeration wisdom. An opportunity popped up the other day to sell 1-pound clamshells at the price of 2/$3 or 3/$5.
“I’m not burying these on a shelf in the regular berry set,” Dey said. “These are going to be front and center, 20 feet wide, outside of refrigeration, big impact displays.”
Aside from adhering to refrigeration outside those special situations, other basics for minimizing shrink on strawberries include first-in, first-out inventory management – except when quality dictates otherwise. Prudent ordering is also key.
“Only purchase what you need to hold you over until your next delivery,” Scagnelli said. “Truck to stand is what I like to see when possible.”
Ybarra gave the same advice.
“It's all about the order,” Ybarra said. “Order what your needs are with a little extra, and try not leave strawberries out of refrigeration for four hours at a time. The berries are high-respiration, and not giving them adequate cold temperature (32 to 40 degrees) causes them to shrivel and decay.”
When it comes to cross-merchandising, strawberries have many potential pairings, most significantly other berries. Other established go-to’s are shortcakes, pie shells, whipped cream and other toppings.
“Strawberries pair well with so many things the possibilities inside the grocery store are literally endless, but here are some of my favorites: incorporating into a chilled wine case creating a destination for a summer picnic of sparkling wine, craft cheeses, artisan bread and of course luscious in-season strawberries,” Schutt said. “Anything indulgent, like high-end bars of chocolate, and maybe something a little different but paired well with nuts like almonds, strawberries can make for an interesting addition to a charcuterie board.”