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If apples can break free of the bonds of the "same old, same old," why not citrus?The same variety explosion that has helped propel the apple market to new heights in recent years is spilling over into citrus, a similarly positioned staple category that might once have been described as languishing and sorely in need of a shot of Vitamin C. Today, there's little doubt that the category has been reinvigorated,

If apples can break free of the bonds of the "same old, same old," why not citrus?

The same variety explosion that has helped propel the apple market to new heights in recent years is spilling over into citrus, a similarly positioned staple category that might once have been described as languishing and sorely in need of a shot of Vitamin C. Today, there's little doubt that the category has been reinvigorated, retailers told SN.

Specialty citrus such as clementines, blood oranges, pummelos and emerald tangerines; a growing supply of off-season citrus from countries like Australia and South Africa; and even increasing availability of citrus with enhanced color are helping to transform the supermarket citrus display from a seasonal contributor to a consistent year-round profit center.

"Citrus has probably been the fastest-growing category in our supermarket over the last four or five years," said Chris Stoll, produce manager at Jungle Jim's International Farmer's Market, Fairfield, Ohio. "While it accounts for about 15% of department sales during the traditional October-through-February season, it's also one of the top-selling categories year-round."

Philip Lesser, director of economic and market research at the Florida Department of Citrus, Lakeland, Fla., said citrus is enjoying a resurgence not just because of supply factors, but also maturing demand.

"In this supercharged economic climate we're in, price is less of an issue and what consumers are looking for is quality," he said. "As a result, the citrus items from Florida that are enjoying the biggest demand are the premium products such as Sunburst and honey tangerines, and pink and red grapefruit."

Florida production statistics back up Lesser's contention. In 1988, specialty citrus totaled 41,586 acres; last year 54,053 acres were devoted to it.

Few products embody the positive impact that specialty products have had on the citrus category as thoroughly as imported clementines.

The fruit, especially that imported from Spain, has taken produce departments by storm in recent years. Easy to peel, sweet, colorful, juicy and packaged in an attractive wood gift box, the Spanish version of the tangerine-family fruit is developing an almost cult-like following, retailers say.

"In many of our customers' homes they've replaced the candy jar," said Harold Seybert, owner of Fairway Markets, a two-store independent operator in New York City's Manhattan. "They're sweet, small, seedless and easy to eat."

As the volume of the Spanish product has increased during the November-February window, many retailers have been able to turn the clementine season into a full-fledged marketing spectacle. Their efforts have been spurred by a push from importers, most notably LGS Specialties, a leading New York supplier that is sponsoring its second retail display contest this year.

Every year, Jungle Jim's builds a massive display of Spanish clementines around an unusual department prop: a full-sized boat. The store puts eight to 10 pallets on display, prices 5-pound units on ad for $3.99 and watches them fly out the door, Stoll said.

"They're a real novelty because of the way they're packaged as well as their eating quality," he said. "It's probably our most attractive citrus item out of the roughly 20 SKUs we carry throughout the year."

Stoll said clementines are featured in an ad about once a month. When they're not on ad they retail for between $4.99 and $5.49, a price that still generates substantial volume, he added.

The frenzy of excitement that Stoll says greets the first shipments of Spanish clementines in Jungle Jim's -- a Midwest store -- is evidence that interest in specialty citrus is expanding to mainstream consumers from a largely ethnic following, said Luke Sears, owner of LGS Specialties, which also imports other specialty citrus such as ortaniques and contraseasonal Spanish navel oranges.

"Demand keeps expanding every year to different parts of the country," he said.

Yet ethnic demand, particularly in the major metropolitan areas of the country, still drives much of the specialty citrus demand, according to Bernard Rogan, a spokesman with Shaw's Supermarkets, East Bridgewater, Mass.

"There's always been a strong demographic element with demand for clementines in our marketing area, where there are a lot of Portuguese and Hispanic consumers who know the product," he said. "That's been aiding and abetting the growth of the clementine demand in particular and specialty citrus in general in our stores."

Clementines and related tangerine varieties are enjoying increased sales because they also deliver "convenience" to the consumer. Unlike traditional oranges or grapefruit, clementines and other so-called "zipper" fruit have skins that are easily removed. That's a quality that consumers value and that retailers need to play up more as more consumers seek "on-the-go" foods, said Lesser.

"The only major consumer trend that citrus is generally out of sync with is the convenience trend, although our product comes with what amounts to a fantastic natural package," he said.

Convenience is seen as such an important emerging issue that the Florida Department of Citrus is investing heavily in research on technology to remove the peeling from citrus in a mass-production environment, Lesser added.

"The new frontier is in re-engineering the fruit, not through genetic engineering, but through the application of water-infusion technology that would allow the citrus skin to be removed more readily," he said. "We're trying to re-engineer it so that the consumer can eat our product with one hand while driving with the other."

Until that technology is refined and commercialized, however, peeled citrus at the retail level will probably remain a novelty that few stores handle, observed Ed Odron, a partner in the retail consulting firm of Heintz & Odron 2000, Salinas and San Joaquin, Calif.

"Peeled citrus will happen," he said. "It generally hasn't been successful yet, but it will be in the next few years. When it does, it will be a huge boon for citrus consumption and allow more convenience stores to handle the product."

When it does become more available, Odron -- recently retired as vice president of produce and floral for Lucky Stores North, San Leandro, Calif. -- said it will be critical that retailers maintain proper temperature-control measures to ensure product quality and safety.

Until pre-peeled citrus is developed, however, supermarkets shouldn't have much of a problem continuing to generate excitement with citrus. One of the factors that they'll continue to leverage as supplies and sources increase is year-round availability of increasingly better-quality product from overseas growers.

These suppliers are also helping drive the growth of the specialty-citrus category, although an increasing volume is being produced in the United States. For example, Stoll said, Jungle Jim's experimented with Jamaican ortaniques and oro blancos last spring and summer, and has sourced clementines from South Africa as well as Spain.

At Fairway Markets stores, pummelos -- also known as Chinese grapefruit -- have been attracting an increased following, in part because of their sheer uniqueness, Seybert said.

"We've priced them at about $3.29, but they're about the size of a 9-count cantaloupe," he said.

Another factor driving the growth of citrus, and one that retailers can leverage in their displays, is a wider variety of color.

"The redder, the better, with grapefruit," Lesser said. "Americans, in particular, like the pink and red varieties, and the more dark-pigmented ones especially."

Similarly, blood oranges, which have deep red flesh, have been rising in popularity in some areas in part because of their bold color, Lesser added.