Consumer demand for sweet onions year-round continues to grow.
“There are actually consumers who’ve never tried a hot onion; they’ve only eaten a sweet onion,” said Barry Rogers, president of Melbourne, Fla.-based Sweet Onion Trading Co.
Compared to cooking onion sales, which are growing 3% annually, sweet onion sales are growing 7% a year, said David Burrell, president of the National Onions Labs testing agency in Collins, Ga.
A study by the Perishables Group showed that only 11% of consumers see price as a determining factor when they choose a sweet onion, Burrell said.
But it’s got to be sweet.
In a 2008 retail test, a major chain placed certified sweet onions in some stores with no identifying signs, and onions that hadn’t passed a pungency test in other stores.
Burrell said same-store sales for the unknown product showed a 1.5 % same-store sales increase in the second quarter, while stores with the unidentified, qualified sweet onions posted an 8% increase.
By the third and fourth quarters, prime Peruvian time, Burrell said the same stores posted a 17% for the conventional onions and a 33% increase for the sweet ones.
“Though the category started as a spring-summer product with Vidalia,” Burrell said, “demand for sweet onions is increasing in the third and fourth quarter. The data shows that when the flavors are right, consumers return.”
Visual recognition of the Peruvian sweet onion, a close cousin to Vidalia, is also crucial to increasing sales, said John Shuman, president of Reidsville, Ga.- based Shuman Produce Inc.
Last December, Shuman asked consumers to choose between the flat, light-skinned Peruvian granex variety and the sweet version of the domestic grano onion.
“Consumers unanimously chose the Peruvian sweet onion for visual recognition,” Shuman said, “and they overwhelmingly chose the Peruvian when we did a taste test, which reinforced our program.”
Shuman said it confuses consumers and hurts the entire category when the darker-skinned granos — which he said still aren’t as sweet as the granex — are labelled sweet next to traditional grano cooking onions.
“The consumer doesn’t know what the difference is,” he said. “You have to give them a point of difference because the sweet onion is a different category than your traditional onion category.”
Michael Hively, general manager of Glennville, Ga.-based Bland Farms LLC, agrees that consumer demand for Peruvians is growing because of its similarity to the Vidalia.