DALLAS — Not even concerns about a lack of communication from Wal-Mart could quell the excitement at the record-setting National Watermelon Association convention.

Record crowd attends watermelon show

The 96th annual watermelon convention, Feb. 17-20 at the Fairmont Dallas Hotel, broke records for attendance and auction success, among other things, said Bob Morrissey, NWA executive director.

Still, some growers expressed concern about what recent lack of communication with Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart could mean for watermelon sales this summer.

Retail question marks

Gordon Hunt, marketing director for the Orlando, Fla.-based National Watermelon Promotion Board, indicated the Wal-Mart situation isn’t ideal but also isn’t necessarily alarming, either.

“It’s not a pleasant situation going into a new season,” he said. “We have not been in contact with them (despite watermelon industry efforts to do so), and I don’t know what more we can do about it.”

Leslie Coleman, director of communications for the promotion board, said she hopes the communication confusion between the watermelon industry and Wal-Mart will work itself out soon.

“At this time, we have not been informed of who has been assigned to the watermelon category. This is the season when we go out to all of our retail accounts to develop our promotional plans for the coming year,” Coleman said in an e-mail on Feb. 23. “We are prepared to actively promote watermelon as soon as we’re called upon by Wal-Mart.”

Kelly Marinaro, owner of Vero Beach, Fla.-based Sunny Fresh Watermelons and a longtime executive committee member who was appointed to the board’s executive council at the convention, agreed the Wal-Mart situation is a sensitive issue.

“There are a lot of comments on what has happened and thoughts on what might happen,” he said. “The fact is we are going to have to wait and see where this thing goes … (but) Wal-Mart will have watermelons in their stores, in my humble opinion.”

Marinaro said he and others at the meeting discussed how to proceed before the group agreed on a position.

“There is a promise to scrutinize performance and review progress, moving in a hopefully forward and meaningful direction,” he said.

Wal-Mart chose Manolo Reyes, a veteran with Issaquah, Wash.-based Costco, to succeed Ron McCormick as vice president and divisional merchandise manager of produce and floral.

Reyes came from a Costco location in Mexico, indicating Wal-Mart might push to improve its Hispanic consumer relations when it comes to perishables.

That could play right into the hands of the watermelon industry, which has seen sales growth in specific value-added categories even in the recession, thanks in large part to increasing sales to Hispanics.

To continue that trend, however, watermelon growers believe open communication lines between Wal-Mart. the watermelon association and promotion board is imperative.

Accentuating the positives

However, Morrissey and others mostly focused on the many positive aspects of the convention.

“What stood out in Dallas in particular was the participation and support from our members across North and Central America, especially during tough economic times,” Morrissey said.

“This was a great convention, with several interesting speakers and committee meetings. One thing that really stood out was the facility,” said Paul Sawyer, Florida Watermelon Association president.

Association members spent the weekend catching up with friends and learning about efforts to continue to expand international markets and cash in on value-hungry consumers.

Strapped for cash and eager to save money on food during the recession, consumers view watermelon as an eye-raiser of a fruit, and now is the time to increase market share, watermelon industry representatives said.