Mary Ostlund, marketing director for Brooks Tropicals Inc., says the company is teaching customers how tropicals grow and ripen to ensure consumerss get the best experience. ( Courtesy Brooks Tropicals Inc. )

In March, tropicals were the last items on shoppers’ lists as they rushed to stock up on potatoes, apples and canned beans to survive the pandemic.  

By April, however, things had changed. With people not eating out as much, retail sales have increased substantially in all departments, including tropicals.

“Tropical fruits saw a 12% growth overall in the three months since the pandemic started, with a lot more growth to come,” said Robert Schueller, director of public relations for Melissa’s World Variety Produce in Los Angeles. 

But increased demand has brought its own challenges. With the disruption in international airlines, shipments that once arrived three times a week have been reduced to once a week.  

As a result, “orders are much larger and spaced out, creating occasional gaps between them,” said Schueller. 

COVID-19 has also affected shipments at J&C Tropicals, with specialty mangoes from Haiti arriving weekly compared to three or four times a week. 

“Things are going well despite the madness,” said J&C vice president Jessie Capote. “The key metric for us is inventory. Our daily inventory is down 30%, which tells me some things might be in shorter supply and that things are moving in and out quickly.”

Capote said he’s always in discussion with retail partners on pricing strategies, and there’s been push-back on items such as rambutans from Guatemala, but retailers are still on board. 

“At the end of the day, food makes people happy,” said Capote. “If you’re quarantined at home, picking up a Haitian mango may be a bright spot in your day, even if you pay a bit more.”

With travel plans and vacations on hold this summer, shoppers are looking to create “micro-escapes” at home, said Alex Berkley, sales manager for Frieda’s Inc., Los Alamitos, Calif.

Berkley said shoppers are keen to go on a “treasure hunt” through the store and are particularly looking for more exotic tropical fruits in the produce department.

“We are helping retailers create those micro-escapes with jackfruit, dragon fruit and young coconut promotions,” she said.

Melissa’s, meanwhile, is focusing on its Made in America summer grilling program, which offered patriotic recipes and merchandising tips for Memorial Day and will peak again for the Fourth of July and Labor Day. 

Mary Ostlund, marketing director for Homestead, Fla.-based Brooks Tropicals Inc., said Brooks is teaching customers how tropicals grow and ripen to ensure consumers enjoy the fruit at its best. 

“They also have fantastic stories to tell,” said Ostlund. Passionfruit, for example, tells harvesters when it’s ready to be picked. “If it drops into your basket when you jiggle it that means it’s good and ready,” she said. 

Katiana Valdes, director of marketing and business development for Crystal Valley Foods in Miami, said changing demographics and the growing diversity of the U.S. population have contributed to the growth of specialty items and allowed many of them to go mainstream.

“Many Hispanics, in particular, consume these tropical fruits and vegetables and they continue to influence restaurant and supermarket offerings,” Valdes said.

Creative recipe ideas from bloggers and influencers also encourage consumers to try unfamiliar fruits and vegetables, she said. 

“As demand increases, it’s important for retailers to make their customers aware of the product mix they offer,” she said. “Large secondary displays in high traffic areas, point-of-sale information and social media highlighting benefits and preparation techniques will all help increase sales.” 

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