(CORRECTED) Despite its small category size, tropical fruit sales are rising, shippers report.
"We are seeing increasing demand for all the tropicals," said Bill Brindle, vice president of sales management for Brooks Tropicals Inc., in Homestead, Fla. "It"s particularly due to the increasing population of the demographics that have always eaten tropicals but also because retailers are offering tropicals to a broader base of customers."
The popularity of food shows on cable television is helping propel consumer demand for tropical fruit, said Karen Caplan, president and CEO of the Los Alamitos, Calif.-based Frieda"s Inc.
When consumers see them on The Food Channel, read about recipes, find them in their supermarkets and if the retailers have merchandised them at affordable prices and through proper store signage, they will buy them because of the flavors, she said.
"In general, our retail clients have had a huge interest in specialty tropical fruits," Caplan said. "Tropical fruits have been growing and people have had a huge interest in them the past few years. People are always looking for something new and interesting and foods that stand out. All the tropicals and unusual specialty fruits really help with that."
Retailers are becoming more interested in displaying tropical fruit as their shoppers become better educated about them, said Dennis Christou, vice president of marketing for Del Monte Fresh Produce NA Inc., in Coral Gables, Fla.
"Exotics are an expanding category and we see demand growing, especially in stores that are located in more affluent areas of the country," he said. "We also see strong growth in areas where the demographic includes educated consumers who travel and are open to experimentation and trying new products."
The seasonality of some tropical fruit can sometimes be problematic for use in foodservice, said Robert Schueller, director of public relations for the Los Angeles-based World Variety Produce Inc., which markets under the Melissa"s brand.
"The chefs are the ones demanding year-round supply," he said. "When a chef or someone in foodservice embraces a tropical fruit and uses it in a signature dish, they love to have them available on a year-round basis."
Tropicals remain a strong-selling category for Eden Prairie, Minn.-based C.H. Robinson Worldwide Inc., said Jose Rossignoli, the category"s general manager.
"It is an important factor and a highly-competitive component of our program," he said. "The tropical category continues to gain momentum in the U.S. from a share of sales perspective. We are seeing strong growth in terms of share of dollar sales."
In 2009, tropicals accounted for 9.5% of industry fruit sales. In 2013, that share increased to 11.1%, Rossignoli said.
Consumers are becoming more familiar with tropicals and produce retailers are modifying their expectations and buying patterns to meet that demand, he said.
"They are bringing a lot more awareness to their produce personnel and the merchandising teams they have in place to deliver a more positive experience every time," Rossignoli said.
Tropical fruit remains behind other commodities that enjoy strong promotions, said Dick Spezzano, president of the Monrovia, Calif.-based Spezzano Consulting Service Inc.
"When it comes to tropicals, there is so little money behind them," he said. "The category is in its infancy. There are many things competing for shelf space and promotional space.
"There"s not a lot of effort from the exporters, but the importers like Frieda"s, Coosemans and Melissa"s, they do good merchandising. They"re important items to them and it will take effort on the supply side. If there are no concentrated efforts supported by other countries or exporters, tropicals will be one of the losers," Spezzano said.
Southern Specialties Inc., in Pompano Beach, Fla., experiences increasing sales of tropical fruit, said Charlie Eagle, vice president of business development.
"We continue to see tropicals as a growth item," he said. "There are few products that have the intense tropical colors that the mango has and the pink flesh of the papaya. Combine this with the eye appeal and the flavors and nutritional value, it just seems natural these products will continue to grow."
Mangoes are the biggest-selling U.S. tropical.
"Mangoes are being introduced in many more restaurants now," said Gary Clevenger, managing member and co-founder of Oxnard, Calif.-based Freska Produce International LLC. "People are being exposed to the flavor, even in the smoothies at McDonald"s. All the smoothie bars always seem to feature a mango flavor. The flavor of the mango is becoming more prevalent. People are slowly beginning to understand the mango."
Note on correction: This article originally mischaracterized the percentage of tropical fruit sales for C.H. Robinson.