Cherries are still a much-anticipated treasure for consumers, but shippers and retailers who aim to satisfy that anticipation have more weeks to do it.

That presents a challenge in repositioning the fruit to make it attractive not only for pent-up demand but also for repeat purchases over a longer period of time.

“I think the biggest thing that the industry is trying to deal with now is the shift from the traditional cherry season that ran from Memorial Day to the second or third week of July,” said Steve Lutz, executive vice president of the West Dundee, Ill.-based Perishables Group.

That eight-week season has now been replaced by earlier fruit from California and later cherry volumes from Washington, combining to make the cherry season extend from mid-May to mid-August.

“You get to the point where you are in mid-August, you are still at the peak of volume but no longer a new item,” Lutz said.

By that time, cherries have been aggressively promoted many times, and by mid-July face a different set of competitive fruit compared with earlier in the season. It is a challenge for marketers to get retailers on board and keep them on board with repeated promotions of cherries.

Promotional support, displays, quality and pricing all play a role in maximizing sales, he said.

“Consumers have to continue to choose cherries over an increasing supply of competitive substitutes like grapes coming in fairly significant quantity,” he said.

In addition, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, stone fruit and pears present options to consumers. Retailers also don’t have a lot of ways to create differentiation with cherries.

Only a couple of major varieties — the dark red sweet cherries (mostly bing) and the yellow cherry (rainier) — are offered now.

Lutz said attraction of new varieties is not the same as it is with a category such as apples.

“It makes it harder to create segmentation in the category,” he said.

More variety and package options would create an opportunity to create a bigger footprint at retail and more segmentation, he said.

Still, Lutz said cherries remain one of the highest transaction items in the produce department.

Cherries drive a huge lift in terms of sales dollars and contribution to total produce dollars.

“The good news is that the longer cherries are in the store, the longer the retailer has the opportunity to leverage that produce for incremental sales,” he said.

Promotion strategies

Some retailers make cherries a signature product and put up big display of cherries on a consistent basis, while others promote cherries infrequently.

“The range of outcomes on cherries is still pretty huge,” Lutz said.

One retail source said cherries have been a winning category.

“The cherry business has  been very, very good,” said Lucky Hicks, senior vice president for perishables at Associated Wholesale Grocers, Kansas City, Kan.

“Cherries don’t cannibalize anything,” he said. “They just cause people to gravitate to the produce department.”

Hicks said many retailers he works with like to promote every week.

“We go after it every week,” he said. ‘When it is over it is over.”

Lutz noted there are retailers who keep cherries above the 5% threshold for total contribution to produce sales throughout the season, while others may drive sales to 5% or 6% for just two or three weeks.

There is a much bigger opportunity for retailers than has been realized so far, Lutz said.

“I think the true opportunity of cherries looks more like the strawberry business than it does the traditional in-and-out business of cherries,” he said.

Cherries have the potential to be a consistently promoted, high-sales item for the majority of the summer, but not all retailers have made it to that point, he said.

The appeal of cherries shouldn’t be diminished by the fruit’s slightly larger marketing window, sources said.

Retailers invest so much time and effort in cherries because of the fruit’s strong performance, said Loren Queen, marketing and communications manager for Yakima-based Domex Superfresh Growers.

“It is cherries, and you think summer,” said Joan Tabak, sales manager for Fridley, Minn.-based Roland Marketing, marketer of Green Giant-branded Washington and Oregon cherries.

Tabak said retail price points will be attractive to consumers.

“Cherries are one of those luxuries that people will buy, no matter the economy,” Tabak said.

Keith Horder, director of business development for Raleigh, N.C.-based L&M Cos. Inc., said cherries are one of a handful of items that doesn’t cannibalize sales of other fruit but instead adds incremental sales to the retail bottom line.

“They are one of the last unique commodities left,” he said.