(May 1) Despite the fact that table grapes now are available year-round in most supermarkets, the arrival of the season’s first California grapes — those grown in the Coachella Valley — is something that many retailers and consumers still look forward to.

“When we get into California, that’s when we really start promoting grapes,” said Peter Fitzgerald, produce director for Sunset Food Marts Inc., a group of four stores based in Highland Park, Ill.

Coachella Valley grapes “are a sales driver for our departments,” he said, because his customers prefer domestic table grapes.

The stores display California grapes on end caps and in prominent spots near the entrance to the produce departments, he said.

Fitzgerald prefers bags to the new clamshell containers because they fit better with the stores’ bulk produce look, and because he finds clamshells more difficult to open. Bags also make it easy for consumers to buy smaller amounts, if that’s what they prefer.

Sunset Food Marts strives for a sweet, premium-size grape, and Fitzgerald said he considers value more important than price.

“I’m not one who believes in selling at cost,” he said, but added that he does seek opportunities for reduced markups, and tries to offer a value price point when possible, whether at $1.69 a pound or 99 cents.

At Bristol Farms, a chain of 15 stores based in Carson, Calif., Raul Gallegos, senior director of produce and floral, tries to stretch the Chilean season into the California deal.

“We have always preferred the domestic or California-grown grape,” he said.

Only if there is a quality issue or supply gap will he order Mexican grapes.

Dave Beard, produce manager at a Country Market store in McComb , Ill., part of a group of about 70 conventional and convenience stores operated by Niemann Foods Inc., Quincy, Ill., said he does not break out a large display of California grapes until two or three weeks after the season gets under way.

“Typically, the first-of-the-season grapes don’t have a strong shelf life, and they’re not nearly as sweet as the ones we finish up with,” he said.

Fitzgerald of Sunset Food Marts said he, too, sometimes encounters small, tart perlettes that sometimes kick off the season. Occasionally, grower-shippers eager to get initial product to market ship perlettes before they are at optimum maturity level, he said.

Fitzgerald said he sometimes holds off on California grapes until the sugraones, flames or thompsons come on.

“That’s when we really start to push,” he said.

Prices also are higher at the beginning of the season, Beard said.

But as prices come down and quality goes up, Beard expands the size of his display.

When grapes are selling at their regular price — $1.59-1.99 a pound — he gives them a 4-foot section in a refrigerated case. But when they’re on ad for 99 cents to $1.19, he expands the section to 8 feet. The stores usually feature multiple varieties on ad.