Consumer demand for sweet onions year-round continues to grow.

“There are actually consumers who’ve never tried a hot onion; they’ve only eaten a sweet onion,” said Barry Rogers, president of Melbourne, Fla.-based Sweet Onion Trading Co.

Compared to cooking onion sales, which are growing 3% annually, sweet onion sales are growing 7% a year, said David Burrell, president of the National Onions Labs testing agency in Collins, Ga.

A study by the Perishables Group showed that only 11% of consumers see price as a determining factor when they choose a sweet onion, Burrell said.

But it’s got to be sweet.

In a 2008 retail test, a major chain placed certified sweet onions in some stores with no identifying signs, and onions that hadn’t passed a pungency test in other stores.

Burrell said same-store sales for the unknown product showed a 1.5 % same-store sales increase in the second quarter, while stores with the unidentified, qualified sweet onions posted an 8% increase.

By the third and fourth quarters, prime Peruvian time, Burrell said the same stores posted a 17% for the conventional onions and a 33% increase for the sweet ones.

“Though the category started as a spring-summer product with Vidalia,” Burrell said, “demand for sweet onions is increasing in the third and fourth quarter. The data shows that when the flavors are right, consumers return.”

Visual recognition of the Peruvian sweet onion, a close cousin to Vidalia, is also crucial to increasing sales, said John Shuman, president of Reidsville, Ga.- based Shuman Produce Inc.

Last December, Shuman asked consumers to choose between the flat, light-skinned Peruvian granex variety and the sweet version of the domestic grano onion.

“Consumers unanimously chose the Peruvian sweet onion for visual recognition,” Shuman said, “and they overwhelmingly chose the Peruvian when we did a taste test, which reinforced our program.”

Shuman said it confuses consumers and hurts the entire category when the darker-skinned granos — which he said still aren’t as sweet as the granex — are labelled sweet next to traditional grano cooking onions.

“The consumer doesn’t know what the difference is,” he said. “You have to give them a point of difference because the sweet onion is a different category than your traditional onion category.”

Michael Hively, general manager of Glennville, Ga.-based Bland Farms LLC, agrees that consumer demand for Peruvians is growing because of its similarity to the Vidalia.

“Sweet onions have become a 52-week item, and people associate them with a flat, light-skinned onion,” said Hively.

“Though it’s a little more expensive, the Peruvian is the best onion available during the fall,” he said.

Marty Kamer, vice president of Greencastle, Pa.-based Keystone Fruit Marketing Inc., said that when consumers see “Product of Peru” on a bag, they’re curious about how the onions are grown.

Kamer said the company’s bag and in-store signage promote the fact that its Mayan Sweets are certified sweet by NOL, they’re guaranteed free of pesticide residue by NutriClean and they’re also certified by GlobalGAP.

“This is a great opportunity to get that message across to the consumer,” said Kamer.

Dave Munson, Keystone’s corporate chef, said many consumers love Mayan Sweets because they’re easy to digest, and they’re easy to introduce to kids.

“When I’m doing demonstrations, the little ones always grab a sample,” he said. “They’re kid-friendly onions.”

Ira Greenstein, owner of Mount Kisco, N.Y.-based Direct Source Marketing, said sweet onions used to be considered a luxury item, but they’re now becoming mainstream.

“As long as retailers can focus and have opportunities to retail at 99 cents or below,” he said, “it really does give consumers an opportunity to buy sweet onions every day.”