KANSAS CITY - Grower-shippers of California and Northwest cherries look forward to excellent quality and abundant opportunities for US retailers to feature their products aggressively at retail this summer. 

The Cascade Mountains have enjoyed abundant snowfall throughout the winter, which has created excellent snowpack and will lend well for irrigation throughout the summer, said Chuck Sinks, president of sales and marketing for Yakima, Wash.-based Sage Fruit.

Winter growing weather, meanwhile, has been on the mild side.

“So far, everything looks great out in the orchards,” Sinks said. “It’s a little too early to tell for sure, but we’re predicting good quality, and overall, our fruit size and volumes should be good this year.”

Volumes for Sage should be in the historically normal range in 2021, following a short crop in 2020.

The biggest cherry consumers, Sinks said, include empty nesters, consumers 33 and younger and health-minded consumers.

California had great chill conditions this winter, which always means a positive start to the season, said Brianna Shales, marketing director for Wenatchee, Wash.-based Stemilt Growers.

Stemilt should transition from California to its main Washington harvest in the first week of June, with the chance of some overlap between the two states.

Washington is expected to rebound with a more normal size crop in 2021 after the short 2020 crop, weather permitting, Shales said.

The 2021 growing weather has been good, and the horticultural team at Yakima, Wash.-based Domex Superfresh Growers is reporting plenty of buds per tree, which should generate a high-quality, promotable crop and a long season, especially in July and August, said Catherine Gipe-Stewart, communications manager.

“We expect excellent demand this season, just as we saw last season,” she said. “People rediscovered during lockdown last summer that cherries are an affordable, healthy luxury that can brighten the smallest of gatherings.” 

Marketing muscle

When it comes to marketing, Sage gets several points of view from its retail partners, Sinks said.

May strategies have worked well, he said, but generally, a large bulk display at the front of the produce section has been considered the best way to merchandise and attain incremental sales. 

“Increased space equals increased sales for cherries,” Sinks said. “Averaged over the summer, cherries are No. 2 in dollars per square foot, but the still receive the second-smallest display size.”

With cherries, he added, visibility is the key. Secondary displays, category size and location and ad frequency all play key roles in higher cherry sales.

“Fifty-three percent of all cherry sales are impulse buys, and retailers can capitalize on that by setting up a secondary display at the front door or near the checkout lanes,” Sinks said.

Sage has cherry-specific point-of-purchase bins available to all of its retail and wholesale partners. Secondary displays drive 13.6% more lift in volume and 22.4% more in dollars, and keeping cherries in front of consumers for the duration of the season is the best way to maintain sales, whether it be in circular ads or multiple locations throughout the store, Sinks said. “Promotions drive increased sales, while simple price drops fail to draw as much attention.”

Cross-merchandising also can play a vital role in marketing fresh cherries, Sinks added. Oatmeal, meat marinades, sauces, jams, salsas, and pies are all great partners for cherries, he said.

In addition to its retail promotions this season, Sage is looking to partner with The Produce Moms and Tony Stewart Racing to encourage consumers to purchase cherries throughout the season.

Sage is also in the process of finalizing two new cherry package designs the company plans to roll out for this year’s crop.

July will be a key promotion month as always for Stemilt and other Northwest growers, but Stemilt continues to add late-season volumes with it’s A Half Mile Closer to the Moon production.

Demand for cherries is always strong, but the surge during the pandemic surprised even some industry vets.

“The pull-through on cherries last year was fantastic, and cherries even performed well in online formats and with the increase of shoppers buying groceries online. This was surprising as cherries are usually purchased on impulse, but it was a testament to retailers’ adaptability and making sure that online shoppers also knew that cherries were back in season,” Shales said.

New — and tried-and-true —approaches

With the streamlining of grocery operations due to COVID, Domex expects to once again see fewer “traditional” marketing activities like product demos and print ads.

“More and more, digital marketing, online ordering and curbside sample giveaways are having an impact. Even after the world heals, we expect these marketing tactics will persist.”  

Gipe-Stewart said Domex is excited to again offer its Super Cherry program, featuring the largest cherries on the tree, in the 2021 season. 

For Stemilt, it all comes back to branding and storytelling when it comes to successfully merchandising its cherries.

The company offers three distinct programs to move fruit all season long. In late May/early June, Stemilt markets fruit grown in California’s Delta region under the 5 River Islands brand.

“These are premium-quality lapin cherries and are a great transition program that focuses on flavor to finish off the California season,” Shales said.

Shortly after July 4, Stemilt begins packing its highest-quality Northwest cherries, which are packed under the Kyle’s Pick label (named for fourth-generation Stemilt grower Kyle Mathison).

“We select the best fruit — largest sizes, high firmness/sugars and select varieties — for this pack that helps retailers differentiate on flavor during their big July push on cherries,” Shales said.

Finally, around Aug. 10, Stemilt wraps up the season with A Half Mile Closer to the Moon-branded fruit, so named for being grown 2,640 feet above sea level, and providing Stemilt with a season-extending program that meets always-strong consumer demand for the summer specialty.

Varietal diversity

Typically rainiers represent 10-15% of the total cherry crop for Domex, Gipe-Stewart said. But that can vary significantly due to weather leading up to harvest. 

In Washington there is an ongoing effort to extend and flatten the supply curve, while increasing size and flavor, Gipe-Stewart said. Varieties like the early Coral Champagne and later Skeena and Sweetheart are increasing as a result, at the reduction of Bing, Chelan and Lapin varieties. 

“One of our newer dark sweet varieties, Black Pearl, has amazing eating quality,” she said. “We are looking forward to growing with this variety that is known for exceptional firmness and high sugars.” 

Stemilt expects a similar mix of dark sweets, rainiers and the company’s patented Skylar Raes this season, Shales said.

All dark sweet varieties are marketed as “dark sweet,” but Stemilt mixes up its offerings based on growing region to ensure maximum quality.

“We work hard to plant the best cherry varieties in the best locales,” Shales said. “In California, coral is one variety that has come up in volume for the industry, and that includes Stemilt. In Washington, we have a very strong skeena program in July and include staccato and other late-harvesting test varieties as part of our A Half Mile Closer to the Moon program in August.”

Rainiers typically make up about 5% of Sage’s overall cherry crop, but this year rainier volumes could be up slightly, Sinks said.

Sage is seeing an increase in demand for organic cherries now, but organic cherries still aren’t nearly as popular as organic pears, apples and other fruit commodities, Sinks said.

“We are just now beginning to see it take off in certain markets.”

Sage has also seen stronger demand for Northwest cherries in Mexico in recent years.