LYONS, Ga. — Supermarket produce aisles usually buzz with excitement and anticipation during the start of the Vidalia onion shipping season.

Retailers heavily promote Vidalia onion season

Doug Ohlemeier

Aries Haygood, operations manager for M & T Farms, Lyons, Ga., examines Vidalia onions in late February.
Haygood and others say growers must continue to grow quality and flavorful onions to maintain the prized onion’s reputation for sweetness.

Shoppers often ask produce workers when the Vidalias are due to arrive and retail stores like to feature the sweet onion in big displays during the season.

Rick Stock, the Cincinnati-based general manager of sales and marketing for Plantation Sweets, Cobbtown, said Vidalia onions maintain a strong reputation among shoppers and produce managers.

“A lot of supermarkets put out extra displays when they kick off the grilling season,” he said.

“These displays are by the front of their stores where they have beautiful graphic boxes. When you look at the presence of the graphic boxes of onions, it kind of gets you excited about getting ready to get the barbecue grill going.”

R.E. Hendrix, president of Hendrix Produce Inc., Metter, said he has seen more purchases from discount stores such as Aldi Inc., Batavia, Ill., and Save-A-Lot Food Stores Inc., St. Louis.

“Overall, you’re seeing more people shopping at these kinds of stores,” he said.

“These discount stores feature Vidalias. They use a lot of 3- and 4-pound consumer packs.”

Hendrix said he has heard of people shopping at the discount outlets that normally would shop at more upscale stores.

One discount retail customer Hendrix sells to will purchase 30 loads of cartons of 4-pound bagged onions.

One season when the Vidalia deal produced a bumper crop, Hendrix said prices weren’t high and the discount store buyers purchased many jumbos.

The stores, he said, ran ads for two weeks and moved a pile of onions.

Marty Kamer, partner and sales manager for Keystone Fruit Marketing Inc., Greencastle, Pa., which sells for Cowart Farms, said produce managers have done well in merchandising Vidalia onions.

“They are much more sophisticated than they were five to 10 years ago,” he said.

“Everyone is trying to reach that ultimate consumer. You go into any retailer now and see all the flavors, sizes and colors of onions in multiple packaging options. Their displays are well-signed and well-displayed.”

Kamer said many retailers are venturing onto the Internet to showcase their products and have integrated Web strategies in their merchandising and marketing efforts in the produce department and other store areas.

Up to 98% of the onions sold by Bland Farms Inc., Glennville, find their way to retail supermarkets, said Michael Hively, general manager.

Wholesale customers, such as those on terminal markets, account for the balance, which ultimately ships to supermarkets, he said.

A small amount may end up in restaurants from chefs who visit terminal markets, Hively said.

“I don’t see foodservice distributors getting more interested in Vidalias,” he said.

“We always see a growing interest in retail accounts. That’s a grow category for us.”

Between the industry and Bland’s marketing, Vidalia shippers have little problem getting retail customers enthusiastic about the start of every Vidalia season.

“It still causes a lot of excitement on the end-customers’ level,” said Troy Bland, asset and transportation manager. “The actual shoppers still get very excited about them and the season’s start.”

John Tumino, marketing director of the Charlotte, N.C.-based Richter and Co. Inc., which markets for Stanley Farms, Vidalia, said Vidalia onions have a strong reputation.

“Once the Vidalia deal starts, the Vidalias are basically a brand recognition program regardless of what farm produces them,” he said.

“When the season starts, they become very promotable and the chains become anxious to begin the deal.”

Barry Rogers, president of Sweet Onion Trading Co., Melbourne, Fla., which markets Vidalias for a number of growers, said the 3-pound bag is a supermarket staple.

“They work well for retailers when prices are high and low,” Rogers said.

“If it is a good and solid crop, and prices are moderate, retailers will jump to a 5-pounder.  The club stores use the 5- and 10-pounders  all the time. Those guys rock and roll with those packs all day long.”

Though some of Rogers’ customers want 2-pound bags, he said he’s never had any requests for 1-pound bags.