Sales grew in the tropical fruit category in 2012, though in some cases it was barely perceptible.

For the 52-week period ending Feb. 23, tropical fruit accounted for 1.1% of total U.S. produce sales, according to Nielsen Perishables Group. That was up slightly from the 1% showing during the same period in 2012. Dollars per store, per week in the category averaged $495, up from $451 a year earlier.

Mangoes led the tropical category by a wide margin, with 39.3% of category sales, down slightly from 40.3% in 2012. Kiwifruit logged a 21.3% share, compared to 20.4% in 2012.

Papayas came in at 10.2%, compared to 11.1% a year earlier. Tomatillos, dates and coconuts, at 5.1%, 4.7% and 2.4% respectively, were the only other items to crack the 2% barrier in 2013, with the first two down from a year earlier and the latter up slightly.

Expecting growth

Growth in the segment is not a problem, according to marketers.

“Tropical sales, for us, have been good,” said Charlie Eagle, vice president of business development with Pompano Beach, Fla.-based Southern Specialties.

Growth in the tropical category has to be viewed a little differently than in more mainstream categories, Eagle said.

“We have a customer base that depends on us for those products, and we try to work closely with them to make sure they’re supplied year round,” he said.

Eagle said he also expects the category to continue to grow at its own pace.

“We continue to see a rise in the portion of the population that’s used to consuming those products,” he said.

That’s just one category driver, he said.

“We are seeing more and more reference to tropical products in the media, whether it’s the cable food channels or cookbooks or magazines,” he said.

Educating consumers

The more exposure tropical fruit gets, the more sales will accelerate, Eagle said.

It’s also important to work with stores to familiarize consumers with tropical fruits that are available, said Marc Holbik, vice president of business development with Miami-based Ecoripe Tropicals.

He cited rambutan as an example.

“Last season we worked together with a couple of retailers to introduce this tropical specialty fruit into their stores,” he said.

Movement stagnated early, at about 15 to 20 pounds per store, he said.

Then came store samplings.

“We then implemented demos on the weekends, helped them create beautiful displays, and offered the fruit in a 1-pound clamshell,” Holbik said.

One retail customer increased its weekly volume to more than 500 pounds per week, Holbik said.

Frieda’s Inc., Los Alamitos, Calif., focuses heavily on the tropical category, which has paid off as one of the company’s top-selling categories, said Karen Caplan, chief executive officer.

“Retailers have found surprising demand for these sweet-tasting and oftentimes unusual-looking fruits,” Caplan said.

Retailers have to be committed to the category in order to succeed in it, said retail consultant Dick Spezzano, owner of Spezzano Consulting Service, Monrovia, Calif.

Many have fallen short, he said.

“I don’t see them doing a real great job on that,” he said. “It’s all about information and how well you train the produce people.”

Nurturing supply-side relationships also has been central to building a tropical fruit program, said Michael Castagnetto, strategic category manager with Eden Prairie, Minn.-based C.H. Robinson Worldwide.

“C.H. Robinson continues to invest in both our infrastructure and our grower base to produce premium products and in the past several years,” he said.

“We have expanded our growing regions in Mexico for limes and mangoes, added Brazilian mangoes to complete our year-round supply, developed a complete and robust Mexican pineapple program, and started a new avocado program.”