Winter citrus is no longer winter citrus.
Nowadays, picked-sweet citrus is available nearly year-round, retailers told SN.
There was a time when consumers anticipated the arrival of the sweetest oranges and tangerines around Thanksgiving and into the holiday season.
Now, just about every variety’s selling season has been stretched on both ends, thanks to quality imports, more growers, better growing operations and increased distribution. As a result, consumers have an almost constant, varied menu of citrus products.
“It’s no longer seasonal. Imports have changed that,” said Tommy Wilkins, director of produce procurement at 50-unit United Supermarkets , Lubbock, Texas.
“We’re getting better-eating fruit these days from Australia, Chile and Peru. When the California navel oranges begin to dwindle, there’s not much of a gap anymore. They go into early June, and then we pick up with imported ones.”
Clementines, too, are a good example, Wilkins told SN.
“Say, five years ago, we’d normally get them the first week in November and have them till May. Now, with good imports from Chile, we have at least 10 months of clementines.”
At one Northeast retailer, clementines are the big sales item right now.
“Sales of them start growing in September, but by December, they peak,” said Tony Mirack, produce buyer/merchandiser at three-unit McCaffrey’s Market in Langhorne, Pa.
“But January is still very good, and then, drops a little in February and March. The season has stretched.”
New varieties, too, continue to make their way into supermarkets, keeping customers interested.
Such items as seedless lemons, for instance, will soon take the spotlight at Rouses Markets , Thibodaux, La.
“We’ll be getting them just about now,” said Joe Watson, produce director at 40-unit Rouses.
“They’ve done very well for us the last couple of years. We set a display right at the front of the department, and that grabs customers’ attention. Then, they come farther in and buy more citrus and other produce.”
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What’s particularly interesting, Watson said, is that seedless lemons don’t affect the sales of the regular lemons.
“It’s all incremental sales.” And that’s with a retail price that’s 20% to 40% higher than for regular lemons.
Another citrus item, not long ago considered exotic — Meyer lemons — sells well at Rouses, and they’re priced even higher than the seedless lemons. Rouses is promoting Meyers right now with an up-front display, and soon will set seedless lemons right alongside them.
Meyer lemons are also a common sight at McCaffrey’s.
“Five years ago, you couldn’t find a Meyer lemon, now they’re more and more easily available,” Mirack said. “There are more vendors and the big people [growers and distributors] are getting into them.”
The Meyer lemon has a thin skin, more juice and is less acidic.
“Some people call them cooking lemons,” Mirack said. McCaffrey’s retails them at $2.99 a pound, loose.
Specialty Produce Sales Pick Up
As he talked about Meyer lemons and other once-considered-specialty items, Mirack said television cooking shows and Martha Stewart’s magazines have created a demand for such varieties, and growers are responding.
“Cara Cara oranges, for example, are more readily available, and have become very popular with our customers,” Mirack said.
Meyer lemons, tangerines and satsumas take center stage at Rouses this week.
Satsumas — a sweet and tender orange-like citrus with origins in Japan — like Meyer lemons and blood oranges, used to be considered specialty produce and were in short supply and/or available only in particular regions, like Louisiana and Texas. Now, they’re all becoming mainstream.
The burgeoning variety of items has helped the entire citrus category grow steadily, Mirack told SN.
United Supermarkets’ Wilkins said the variety of product United offers now is double what it was five years ago. And other retailers told SN that their variety had at least increased by a third in that length of time.
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In addition to new varieties, subcategories of subcategories are attracting attention.
Take “Cuties,” for instance. They’re smaller and sweeter clementines that have been trademarked by a major California grower.
“They’re extra sweet. Those and Mineola tangelos sell great. We’ve had Cuties [later in the fall] for a couple of years in 5-pound boxes, and in 3-pound net bags,” said Lequitte Perry, produce manager at K-VA-T ’s Louisa, Ky., Food City store.
“Mineola tangelos we’ve had since mid-September, and we’re selling more of them than tangerines. There’s a steady build up of citrus sales as stone fruit goes out.”
Even with weather that damaged crops in some parts of the country, citrus is plentiful this winter, industry sources told SN. (See sidebar: USDA Says Domestic Citrus Crop in Good Shape .)
Hurricane Isaac played havoc with some Louisiana citrus crops, particularly with satsumas and navel oranges.
“Early estimates had our navel crop down by 80% to 90%, but it hasn’t been quite that bad, but fruit drops and wind damage hurt,” Rouses’ Watson said.
Louisiana-grown satsumas took a hit.
“We had some in August, early, and typically we’d have them till the end of the year,” Watson said. “But this year, we’ll be lucky to have them through Thanksgiving.”
He’s hoping to pep up sales later in the winter with California Sumo tangerines — a sweet, seedless and large variety.
“We had them last year. It was a short window, no more than four weeks in March, but our customers went crazy. I hope I can get them again.”
They were merchandised in high-graphic boxes.
Cuties, too, are shipped in colorful boxes that attract attention on the sales floor. Graphics show a cartoonish Cutie unzipping its skin — emphasizing how easy Cuties are to peel.
Food City’s Perry said she’ll build an endcap of tangerines in December with spillovers of Cuties. She and her associates also will tie ribbons around boxes of Cuties and other clementines and set them with fruit baskets in floral.
“People pick them up to take as a house gift,” Perry said.
Other retailers, who pointed to the ever-increasing variety of citrus, said they also create interest by merchandising citrus items in different ways. Sometimes they merchandize in bins and in paper tote bags, in addition to using endcaps and other conventional ways to show them off.
At upscale Newport Avenue Market in Bend, Ore., navel oranges are presented with honey crisp apples and other fall fruits, arranged on a middle-of-the-floor display that includes a full-sized, real tractor.
“We have so much produce. I just talked to my major supplier in Portland, and he told me citrus is plentiful in all categories this year,” said Brian Moothart, produce manager at the single-unit store.
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Droughts in Texas, shortened growing seasons in California, and continued disease-plagued crops in Florida threatened to reduce a ready supply of quality produce, but retailers, like Moothart, said they’re not worried.
With domestic growers’ improved operations, more quality imports, and still-emerging new varieties of citrus, the category is strong, SN’s sources said.
“We’ll be getting California navels later this month. At the end of that season, then we’ll get high sugar navels from Australia. They’re jumbo-sized,” Moothart said.
He also stressed that he’ll have plenty of Meyer lemons and blood oranges.
But the adverse weather conditions in many places have caused Moothart and other produce managers to make good use of their brix meters, instruments that measure sugar levels in fruits.
“We like big fruit that tastes good,” Moothart said, “and our growers know that. Fruit has to be really sweet. If my brix meter doesn’t show a high enough sugar level, I’ll refuse the shipment.”
Grapefruit Purchases Plummet
Even with crop diseases that have been lingering in Florida, grapefruits there have survived.
While all the retailers SN talked to said their produce sales have grown steadily, and didn’t even slack off during the recession, some said grapefruit is the one item that has slowed down in sales.
Tony Mirack said he thought McCaffrey’s dip in grapefruit sales was maybe due to warnings consumers have had that fresh grapefruit interacts badly with some heart medications. Others, too, said they had heard that grapefruit renders some medications ineffective.
Others theorized that there are just so many other choices these days. Sweet choices. Indeed, Perry at Food City said kids will almost always vote for a clementine or a tangerine over grapefruit.
Convenience, or lack thereof, could be a factor, too, one consultant said.
“Grapefruit continues to be associated with breakfast, and people eating on the run may prefer a hand fruit,” said Dick Spezzano, founder and president of Spezzano Consulting Service, Monrovia, Calif.
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In some parts of the country, however, grapefruit is a coveted treat. Texas grapefruit, for example.
“We already have customers asking when we’re getting Texas grapefruit in,” United’s Wilkins told SN.
“Grapefruit is our state fruit, and our Texas grapefruit is a huge image item for us. We’ll get them late this month, and have them through May.”
The largest size is most popular. The retail price: 99 cents a pound.
Texas grapefruit and Chilean navels will be the next big citrus promotion at United, Wilkins said.
Up in Oregon, Moothart at Newport Avenue Market, said he’d seen no lag in grapefruit sales.
“Grapefruit sales for us are strong. We’ve got a good display of them in boxes. All my staff, too, are instructed to cut some up and sample them.”
Moothart and Watson at Rouses stressed the importance of training in produce. Watson said it was especially important since there are so many new varieties coming onto the market with different qualities.
“Telling customers what’s unique about a product and how to use it helps build sales,” Watson said.
Sidebar: USDA Says Domestic Citrus Crop in Good Shape
Supermarket produce buyers have good reason to be optimistic about domestic citrus supplies this winter, according to predictions from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and from sources in Florida and California.
Despite droughts, Hurricane Isaac and other factors, including Florida’s continuing fight against citrus crop diseases, government statistics show that citrus has held up well.
Earlier this month, the USDA estimated the total Florida citrus crop will be up about 5% over last season. Even the state’s grapefruit crop, which has been threatened by crop disease, will be up slightly over last season, USDA reports.
“It’s going to be another good year,” said Michael Sparks, executive vice president/CEO Florida Citrus Mutual, in a statement.
Read more: Unusual Weather Disrupts Local Produce Availability 
Meanwhile, in California, navel oranges will be in adequate supply, consultant Dick Spezzano, president, Spezzano Consulting Service, Monrovia, Calif., told SN.
USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service forecasts California’s initial 2012-1013 navel orange crop to be up 6% from the previous year. That forecast is based on the Navel Orange Objective Measurement Survey conducted in California’s Central Valley.
Also, clementines will represent an impressive part of California’s citrus crop production, Spezzano pointed out.
“California clementine production has gone from zero to a 100 million 5-pound boxes in 10 years. Right now, we’re getting 100 million 5-pound boxes of clementines a year from California. That’ll go up to 120 million to 130 million boxes in the next few years,” Spezzano said.
“Between Australian imports and a new crop out of California, clementines will be plentiful.”
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