PLANT CITY, Fla. — For Florida strawberry growers, retail sales are vital because as much as 95% of the state’s berries are shipped to supermarkets.

“Retailers have been doing a good job in merchandising our fruit because demand keeps increasing,” said Gary Wishnatzki, president and chief executive officer of Wish Farms. “I see bigger displays, which always help move more product.”

Retail sales dominate Florida strawberry shipmentsOne pet peeve of Wishnatzki’s is non-refrigerated displays.

Wishnatzki said he often sees too many stores merchandising strawberries in the open air.

“We are doing our consumers a disservice when we don’t keep strawberries in a refrigerated display,” he said. “I can’t understand why we see strawberries in unrefrigerated end cap displays. They don’t put ground beef out there in those kinds of displays.”

Retailers designate ample shelf space for strawberries and effectively place them in key areas of the produce department, said Shawn Pollard, salesman for Astin Strawberry Exchange LLC.

However, many retailers aren’t consistent with weekly merchandising.

“One of our biggest hurdles is convincing the chains that they need to promote them week in and week out,” Pollard said. “A lot of retail groups want to go on one week and then go off one week. That’s hard for us in terms of marketing, because we have to continue picking.”

For Chris Smith, sales manager for Dover-based BBI Produce Inc., retail sales are a reflection of high consumer interest in strawberries and effective retail promotions.

“Last year, our retail customers used more berries than they ever had from us,” he said. “Retailers get a lot of money for strawberries during promotable times. They’ve gotten excited about them. It seems to be a continuing to build kind of thing. The more they do, the more they sell. They get a lot more for the money in promotions compared to other items.”

Most of the berries sold by Dover-based Gulf Coast Produce Inc., ships to retail customers east of the Mississippi River, into Louisiana and Canada, sales manager Steve Machell said.

Retail sales account for about 85% of Gulf Coast’s sales, he said.

“Retailers do a nice job promoting strawberries,” Machell said. “They work for us during the peaks of the season, and they push the berries hard by putting displays at the front of the produce departments.”

Last season, Lakeland-based Publix Super Markets Inc., co-promoted Gulf Coast’s strawberries through a Cool Whip promotion, Machell said.

He said co-merchandising effort spurred a massive sales increase.

Jeremy Burris, vice president of sales and sourcing for the Florida division of Salinas, Calif.-based Colorful Harvest LLC, likes to visit retail stores throughout the U.S., particularly in the Northeast.

“They do a good job and put a lot of creativity into their displays,” he said. “They do a good job setting up promotions and displays for Florida strawberries during times of promotable volumes.

“We have some good chains we work with so we can communicate volume and what prices will be. They will usually step up and pull what they need to help move the crop.”