Although avocado marketers say they’re not anywhere near ready to claim that avocados are a staple item throughout the U.S., continued strong demand in the face of record high prices indicates some consumers see avocados as a must-have item.

“Avocados have passed from exotic to something more of a regular piece of fruit,” said Jose Luis Obregon, managing director of the Hass Avocado Board, Irvine, Calif.

He said avocado consumption is growing by about 11% annually.

Five years ago, in 2006-07, consumption was about 1.08 billion pounds, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It now is about 1.2 billion pounds.

Ross Wileman, vice president of sales and marketing, Mission Produce Inc., Oxnard, Calif., says he expects consumption to hit 2 billion pounds by 2018.

In tandem with consumption, sales also have gone up.

In 2010, hass avocado retail sales in dollars increased by about 14%, and volumes were up about 29%, the board reported in its 2010 State of the Category, which is available online at www.avohq.com.

“The trend has been very positive,” said Phil Henry, president, Henry Avocado Corp., Escondido, Calif. “We’ve seen very strong sales, even with the economy the way it is.”

Wileman said the industry was surprised by strong consumption despite high prices.

It’s likely that a combination of factors kept demand strong, including avocados’ nutritional benefits, its popularity in Latino cultures and the success of various associations’ promotions, Wileman said.

Mission expects continued growth in demand, he said.

Dana Thomas, president and chief executive officer, Index Fresh Inc., Bloomington, Calif., said demand is strong and continues to grow annually at a “healthy pace.”

Retailers likely will be happy to see promotional volumes this fall so they can get the category moving.

“We’re coming out of a few months of very high prices and retailers have been hurt by not being able to promote as frequently as they’d like to,” said Emiliano Escobedo, Los Angeles marketing director, Avocado Producers and Exporting Packers Associations of Michoacán.

With an increased supply of avocados on the U.S. market expected as Mexico’s season hits its stride this fall, retailers will need to aggressively promote avocados, Escobedo said.

Chile’s new avocado season also will be underway this summer, with peak volumes beginning in about December.

“Retailers will need to shift back to their old way of thinking and to promoting aggressively to get sales and volumes up and to recuperate what was lost in sales in the first two quarters of the year,” Escobedo said.

Giumarra Agricom International, Escondido, Calif., expects to support bigger volumes this fall with promotion-level pricing on good-quality avocados, said Chris Henry, director of sales and marketing.

Thomas also said bigger volumes of avocados this fall would offer promotional opportunities. He doesn’t expect an oversupply, but it likely will be moderately more than last year and should allow retailers to do some creative promotions.

In-store promotions, samplings and cross-merchandising with multiple displays generate consumer interest in avocados, Chris Henry said.

Cross-promotions with chips and vegetables attract shoppers’ attention and increase sales, said Dennis Christou, vice president of marketing, Del Monte Fresh Produce NA Inc., Coral Gables, Fla.

He suggests promoting avocados with Del Monte Gold Extra Sweet Pineapple, Del Monte’s fresh-cut fajita mix, and with tomatoes.

Point-of-sales materials and promotions tied to holidays and national sporting events also draw attention, Christou said.

Del Monte provides its customers with a variety of point-of-sale materials, demonstration assistance, display contest opportunities and secondary displays, as well as category management support.

Avocados are a valuable category in produce departments and retailers want to promote them, so Mission helps its retailer customers develop promotional plans and also does demonstrations and participates in advertising, Wileman said.

Giumarra supports retail customers with category management services, merchandising assistance, and current market information, and it works with retailers and agencies to promote avocados, Chris Henry said.

Retailers also can get merchandising tips and point-of-sales materials, as well as promotional analysis from Avocados from Mexico, at www.AvocadosfromMexico.com.