U.S.: Organic bananas gain appeal
From the pages of Produce Business
Market share and demand continue to grow
After years in the retail shadow of other organic fruit, organic bananas are making their impact as a rapidly growing sector in the overall banana category. Dollar sales are up 23 percent and volume is up 26 percent as compared to last year, while conventional bananas dropped 3.5 percent in dollar sales and 2.7 percent in volume, according to Nielsen data shared by Marion Tabard, vice president, marketing – North America of Dublin-based Fyffes Inc., with U.S. offices in Coral Gables, FL.
Organic growers deserve much of the credit for supplying organic bananas that nearly match conventional in terms of size, appearance and, importantly, price,” says Dick Spezzano, Spezzano Consulting Services, Monrovia, CA. The rise in demand for organic bananas is good news for major growers, most of whom produce both conventional and organic varieties. “We’ve noticed a steady increase in the demand for organic bananas from multiple channels, including retail, club and convenience stores,” says Dionysios Christou, vice president, marketing, Del Monte Fresh Produce NA Inc., Coral Gables, FL. For Del Monte, the trajectory is welcome news. “Del Monte has successfully grown and sold organic bananas for more than 10 years.” he says. “We offer an entire line of organic banana products that have been certified organic by the Quality Certification Services (QCS) and are also Control Union Certified. Like our other banana products, all packs come in 40-lb. boxes and include Organic Naked, Organic Banded, Organic 2-lb. Banded, Organic Bagged and Organic 3-lb. Bagged,” says Christou.
The experience of Dole Food Company, Westlake Village, CA, is similar. “In recent years, we have seen strong growth in demand for Dole Organic Bananas by both retailers and consumers,” says Bil Goldfield, director of corporate communications. “We started our organic program more than 20 years ago and are now the largest grower and distributor of premium organic bananas in the United States. Our organic production and diverse sourcing network has allowed us to keep up with the increasing demand for organic bananas in recent years.”
The market share for organic bananas, while growing, remains somewhat low at less than 10 percent for many retailers. However, regional differences impact the proportion of organic to conventional at retail. “Generally, the Northeast and Pacific regions have been the most popular for organic, with demand growing significantly in the Northeast compared to the central regions of the country,” says Goldfield. “But in the last few years, we have seen growth in the demand for organic bananas in the central states, too, reflecting the general consumer interest in organic produce.”
For Steve Oates, vice president, produce and floral, Lucky’s Market, Niwot, CO, differences are even more nuanced, with Colorado stores selling more organic than conventional and southern stores selling more conventional product.
Production zones expand
Most retail organic bananas in the United States are produced in Ecuador, Dominican Republic, South America and Mexico, with new acreage coming into production predominantly in Mexico and Colombia. Organics Unlimited based in San Diego, has been strategically expanding its farmable acreage for organic bananas since 2015. With farms in Colima, Mexico, the company expects to produce on 690 hectares/1,705 acres in 2017, compared to 440 hectares/1,087 acres in 2015. Both virgin soil and soil previously used for conventional farming comprise the company’s new farmland.
Producers continue to be challenged by the lower yields and higher irrigation and land needs of organic banana farming. Anticipating continuing increases in demand, their strategic planning includes seeking opportunities to expand their sources. Dole describes itself as the pioneer in developing organic banana production and today has very diversified sourcing. “Our experienced operations teams successfully managed great challenges in developing a long-term growing plan that takes into account not only land, but several other limitations on organic production,” says Goldfield. “Organic bananas need to be grown in areas where the pressure from pest and diseases is low due to the limited options to fight them. These growing conditions cannot be met in many of the traditional banana growing areas because of high temperature and rainfall.” Goldfield acknowledges that the organic agriculture learning curve yields lessons and best practices that can be applied to conventional produce practices as well.
In order to sustain retail growth, organic bananas must match the performance of conventional bananas. The experience of both Southern California’s Northgate González Markets and Lucky’s Market, with store locations in Colorado, the Midwest and the south, validates the progress made by producers and distributors. Both say organic bananas resemble conventional in appearance, ripen at the same rate as conventional and have a similar shelf life.
“Organic bananas have gotten much better in the past few years,” notes Oates of Lucky’s. “They match conventional in size, appearance and performance. Producers who supply us with both types of bananas do a good job of identifying them.”
Still, retailers play an important role in maintaining the quality of organic bananas. “Whether organic or conventional, the biggest impact on shelf life is how and where the bananas are stored before and after purchase,” says Goldfield.
Price spread narrows
Consumers often switch between conventional and organic based on price. As with all produce, weather conditions, transportation costs and political factors can affect supply and pricing, but the pricing gap between organic and conventional has narrowed of late, even with the higher cost of organic production and price to retailers. “At today’s approximately 20-cent per pound differential between organic and conventional, organic bananas currently are priced in the crossover consumer range,” says Spezzano.
Jonathan Steffy, director of sales and retail services for Four Seasons Produce, Ephrata, PA, considers organic bananas to be under-valued, given the growing practices, labor, time and logistics required to get then onto the supermarket shelf. “But retailers continue to perceive the U.S. consumer marketplace as more price-conscious about bananas than most other produce items. For many years retailers could capture a 40- to 50-cent per pound price premium. With more production and so many retailers and discounters adding and calling attention to organic bananas, the premium at retail has diminished.”
Marketing sells product
“Marketing organic produce starts well before the customer reaches the produce section,” says Goldfield. “In addition to the ‘health halo’ of organic produce, the organic shopper looks for authenticity and transparency in their food choices.” Dole maintains a dedicated Facebook page that provides information on its belief in organic farming, and allows visitors to enter farm codes for specific data on where and how their particular fruit was grown.
Within the produce section, Dole supports retailers with specific programs to help drive organic sales, including turnkey promotional programs and customized components such as recipes and usage ideas, point-of-sale materials, in-store posters, take-one educational materials, public relations campaigns, and digital and social channel support.
“Bananas remain a staple, so we recommend the full display be toward the middle or back of the department rather than at the front with seasonal items,” says Steffy. “Organic and conventional work well in integrated displays, as long as they are not comingled.”
Organics Unlimited designs its packaging with both retailers and consumers in mind. “With the introduction of a rebranding initiative in 2016, we added strongly branded consumer messaging to labels on our Organics Unlimited and GROW bananas,” says Mayra Velazquez de Leon, president.
“The messaging addresses the benefits of sustainability and community support to both the retailer and consumer. Our attractive boxes carry the same messages and can be used in retail displays,” she says.
Like conventional bananas, organic bananas can be cross-merchandised with companion items such as milk or cereal. “We often use banana tree merchandisers in secondary areas specific to other organic products,” says Alfonso Cano, produce director, Northgate González Markets, Anaheim, CA.
Organics Unlimited reminds retailers to maintain their displays by keeping them well-stocked and visually appealing with interesting and eye-catching designs. The company offers a variety of pre-designed display materials, or a gallery of designs and photos that allow retailers to create their own signage using the company’s graphic elements.
Supply team efforts appear to be working. Cano notes that “the organic banana is our top organic item, just like the conventional banana still is our produce item. However, the organic variety is cutting into the market share of conventional.” Cano sees the organic banana as the gateway to all organic fruits and vegetables.
Spezzano Consulting’s Spezzano cautions that organic banana sales can be disappointing, even with marketing efforts in place. “Consumers are not as concerned about pesticides and bananas as they are about thin-skinned fruit. Maybe that’s why they are slow to switch.”
What’s next? Four Seasons Produce’s Steffy sees growth in fair trade organic bananas, particularly among values-sensitive retailers and wholesalers who want to contribute to fair trade premiums that go back to farm workers and their communities. For now, this overshadows actual consumer understanding of fair trade, the demand for it and the willingness to pay a higher price.
Headline photo: Dole