(Dec. 23, 3:44 p.m.) PLANT CITY, Fla. — With an overwhelming majority of its strawberries being sold in supermarkets, Florida grower-shippers say the segment has been critical to the deal’s growth.

Large southeastern retail chains such as Publix Super Markets Inc., Lakeland, and Sweetbay Supermarkets, Tampa, have been enthusiastic supporters of Florida’s strawberry deal.

“Those two chains are tremendous,” said Shawn Pollard, salesman for Astin Strawberry Exchange LLC. “They are fantastic and they do well, from the start of the deal until the end. Without them, we would have a tough time selling our berries.”

Improvement in varieties has helped boost retail sales, said Gary Wishnatzki, president and chief executive officer of Wishnatzki Farms.

“I believe the retailers definitely recognize the value of the Florida strawberry deal and the fact that we are close to home and that we have good-tasting fruit,” he said. “The shipping quality has improved immensely over the last five years. Retailers are recognizing that and are reacting accordingly.”

Aggressive merchandising

Florida’s leading supermarket chains last season, Wishnatzki said, were very aggressive in their merchandising and promotions.

Wishnatzki sells to retail chains throughout the Southeast and Northeast and east of the Mississippi River, as well as to stores in Texas.

Retail chains do well in putting strawberries on ad, offering two clamshells for $4.99 during peak season, said Chris Smith, sales manager for BBI Produce Inc., Dover.

At those kinds of prices, he said, berries sell well.

With today’s tougher economic times, Smith cautions berry marketers to price their berries wisely.

“With people watching their money closely, it could be more important than ever this year to be in the right price at the right time,” Smith said. “If you’re wrong and price them too high, you can get yourself into trouble quickly. You can get yourself into an oversupply situation faster this year maybe than normal.”

While Florida’s strawberries ship overwhelmingly to retailers, the fresh berries are also purchased by wholesalers and foodservice purveyors that distribute the berries throughout the country.

Wholesale segment

Wholesale sales account for around a quarter of berry sales for C&D Fruit & Vegetable Co. Inc., Bradenton. The level of wholesale sales in recent years has remained steady, said Tom O’Brien, president.

“We have a couple of wholesalers we go to on a regular basis that we have faith in,” he said. “We have good foodservice customers but the restaurant business is like the car business. It has been hurt.”

Grimes Produce Co. LLC sells to chain stores because supermarkets move the volume but the wholesale distribution end also orders the berries, said Sal Toscano, sales manager.

“Occasionally, wholesalers will ask for ad prices,” he said. “I assume they work out ad deals with some of the local retailers they supply that may be on a smaller scale than the national chains.”

Up to 10% of Astin’s berry sales go to wholesale and foodservice distributor buyers. That amount, Pollard said, has declined a little as the grower-shipper focuses on retail sales.

“When I first started, everyone used to do more wholesale business,” he said. “We are a big direct growing operation. We have the flexibility to pre-commit the crop. Retail sales are what built this business. The retail market is more consistent on prices.”

Sales to supermarket chains account for 95% of the sales for Gulf Coast Produce Inc., Dover, said Steve Machell, sales manager.

Higher transportation costs may lead some of the wholesalers and foodservice distributors to the Florida deal, but it’s hard to tell their buying habits, he said.