DOVER, Fla. — Retail sales account for more than two-thirds of the Florida strawberry deal’s purchases, grower-shippers say.

Steve Machell, sales manager for Gulf Coast Produce Inc. said retailers remain loyal to Florida berries.

“They always stay on through the end of our season in mid-April,” he said. “As long as the quality is there.”

Machell said growers last season could have harvested a week longer and finished in late April instead of their normal mid-April ending. Torrential rains, however, brought a premature ending to the crop, he said.

Gary Wishnatzki, president and chief executive officer of Wish Farms, Plant City, applauds retailers for staying with Florida berries.

“Retailers seem to want to stay with domestic product when it’s available,” he said.

“Our biggest competition this time of year is from Mexico. But Florida retailers want American and local product. Most of the other retailers do too. It’s more in Texas and the Midwest that retailers are more receptive to buying Mexican fruit but the retailers we market to, they say they would prefer to buy domestic berries.”

Chris Smith, sales manager for BBI Produce Inc., said all of BBI’s retail customers increase their purchases every year to match BBI’s growing demand.

“You need more demand to match volume to make it work out,” Smith said.

“The trend has been for the retailers to increase their demand every year. We hope this continues so they can move the extra berries.”

For Doug Ranno, chief operating officer and managing partner with Colorful Harvest LLC, Salinas, Calif., the start of volume for Florida’s strawberry season should prompt retailers to erect big displays.

“They (retailers) shouldn’t be afraid to make larger displays of strawberries earlier in the season,” he said.

“Even with higher prices, consumers hungry for strawberries will pick them up if the merchandising space is appropriate.”

Shawn Pollard, salesman for Astin Strawberry Exchange LLC, Plant City, said Florida may send more berries to stores in time for Valentine’s Day promotions.

Hitting the deal can be problematic because the holiday falls in between the ending of the season’s first crop and start of its second crop.

“Valentine’s Day can be a scary deal,” he said.

“Everyone wants to promote. Waiting for the second crop to come in, we can sometimes get caught in between. The radiances look like they may hit that window.”

Keith Mixon, president of SunnyRidge Farm-Dole, Winter Haven, said strawberries enjoy strong promotional support in the produce aisle.

“Most retailers see strawberries as an everyday item, as their foundation,” he said.

“As promotional opportunities come up, being nimble and aggressive to really push the product when it’s at the right time and price is important. That seems to maximize the business part of it. Their tactics on how they do it from the in-store portion are as varied as the different store brands out there.”

Valerie Lott, director of strawberry business management for Driscoll Strawberry Associates Inc., Watsonville, Calif., said Florida’s growing deal helps retailers.

“At Driscoll’s, we’ve been working relentlessly toward building our year-round supply of great quality strawberries,” she said.

“Florida is a very important part of that strategy and we’re excited to offer customers increasing supplies this season.”