Skip to main content

The Surge in Citrus


From easy-to-peel mandarins to lemons and navels, citrus is bursting with flavor and sales potential. It was once a category that dominated in the winter, but imports have created opportunity for year-round enjoyment of these juicy fruits.

“Demand, particularly for easy peelers, continues from winter through the summer, and is energizing the citrus category in a big way,” affirms James Milne, director of citrus for The Oppenheimer Group, nicknamed “Oppy,” in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Seedless mandarins, a favorite fruit across a broad spectrum of shoppers, has skyrocketed to success in recent years. The mass appeal of this easy-to-peel fruit has made citrus top of mind for consumers and helped to spotlight the entire category.

International Sensation

Oppy, which sources citrus from around the globe, saw strong performance from Peruvian Minneola tangelos this year. “They’re kind of the forgotten child of citrus, but I think they’ve made a break through,” asserts Milne.

Navels from Chile, Australia and South Africa also had a good run, he notes, as did clementines and navels from Uruguay, which Oppy introduced last year.

“We’ve seen a good boost in citrus consumption throughout the year, with huge mountains of fruit sold on a weekly basis from fall through the winter, and we expect to see a lift in sales again this year,” observes Milne.

For summer citrus, Australia is Oppy’s No. 1 navel producer. “But what’s really increased from Australia is the late-season W. Murcott,” he says. “It is in such high demand.”

2015 marked the first full year that Oppy has sourced fruit from South Africa, and it was an “excellent experience,” notes Milne. “South Africa was … far and away our strongest performer. It is going to have a burgeoning supply of W. Murcotts and Minneolas in the future.”

Chilean Citrus Soars

Chile is rapidly making a name for itself with lemons, clementines and W. Murcotts, says Milne, adding, “The Chilean Fresh Fruit Association is doing some good work in gaining understanding for what Chile has to offer in citrus.”

“It has been a great season for Chilean citrus in North America,” notes Karen Brux, of the San Carlos, Calif.-based association.

According to Brux, through week 40 of 2015, exports of Chilean citrus were around 12.5 million boxes, up 30 percent over last year. The lion’s share — 80 percent — of Chilean citrus went to the North American market.

Chile is becoming an increasingly important source of citrus for North America. Exports to the continent through week 40 of this year were up 11 percent for clementines and 19 percent for navels versus the same time period last year.

It was Chilean mandarins and lemons that experienced phenomenal volume increases, however. Mandarin volume surged from 26,529 tons to 39,789 tons, an increase of 50 percent. “Even at this volume, the market was short and retailers didn’t have enough to promote,” says Brux. “This clearly demonstrates the strong year-round market that exists for easy peelers.”

Meanwhile, Chilean lemon volume to North America increased from 16,720 tons to 33,645 tons, an increase of 101 percent for the 40-week time period.

To drive sales of Chilean citrus, the main season of which is June to October, the Chilean Fresh Fruit Association runs retail display contests. “It can be very challenging to obtain strong shelf space when the volume and range of domestic fruits [are] so high, and display contests have been an effective tactic for us,” explains Brux.

The association also works with retailers on social media and contests. Its “spooktacular” carved navels generated a slew of Facebook activity, as well as a television appearance. “We’re finding that retailers want holiday and season-specific images and usage ideas, so we’ll continue to focus on this next season,” says Brux.

Easy Peelers/Seedless

U.S.-grown citrus is also experiencing unprecedented growth, with California the home of easy-to-peel seedless varieties like the wildly popular mandarin.

“The mandarin category continues to see double-digit increases,” notes Bob DiPiazza, president of Pasadena, Calif.-based Sun Pacific, the company behind Cuties California Clementines. “Last year, mandarins were up 23 percent over prior year and surpassed navel orange sales by 27 percent.”

“The trend of seedless citrus has been on the rise over the last year. For example, the California mandarin business is a perfect example of a seedless variety that is growing year over year,” observes David Krause, president of Delano, Calif.-based Wonderful Citrus, which grows, packages and markets Wonderful Halos, a seedless easy-to-peel mandarin.

“Due to the fact that consumers are gravitating to more seedless fruit choices, you’ll most likely see the trend grow within other citrus fruit,” predicts Krause, who attributes the strong demand for Wonderful Halos to the rise in health-conscious consumers, as well as the record $100 million five-year marketing campaign behind the brand.

The Boost in Branded

Like virtually every category in fresh produce, the trend toward branded products in citrus is dramatically changing the way consumers shop for these fruits.

“We believe in turning commodities into brands,” asserts Krause. “We invest heavily in television advertising, print out-of-home, national FSIs, in-store displays, PR and digital.”

With sales in the grapefruit category declining in recent decades, the Los Angeles-based Wonderful Co. seeing a brand-building opportunity, launched Wonderful Sweet Scarletts Texas Red Grapefruit last year as the market’s sole branded grapefruit.

“With the right marketing support, we can revitalize the category to both existing grapefruit consumers and the younger demographic of new consumers,” says Krause.

Following the tremendous success of Cuties, Sun Pacific aims to create similar excitement with navel oranges. Last year, the produce company tested its Vintage Sweets Heirloom Navel program with select retailers.

“We saw an overwhelming response from consumers who were looking for a premium product, and were willing to pay for the premium,” says DiPiazza.

This January, Sun Pacific will debut a highgraphic 3-pound bag that tells the Vintage Sweets Heirloom story. The bags will be packed in a colorful self-merchandising carton.

Culinary Charisma

America’s increasingly health-aware and food-adventurous consumer is discovering that there’s more to citrus than lemons, grapefruits and oranges. Packed with flavor, juiciness and acidity, citrus is more than a nutritious snack — it’s also a versatile ingredient in a number of cuisines.

“Driving the interest in citrus and grapefruit is consumers’ inclination toward bold, distinctive flavors, as well as ingredients with a healthy perception,” says Paul Huckabay, western citrus sales manager for Duda Farm Fresh Foods Inc., in Oviedo, Fla. “Citrus creates a balanced dish when combined with other ingredients, allowing for full-flavor meals that are not laden with fat and unnecessary calories.”

Duda continues to see sales growth in flavorful specialties such as Meyer lemons, Cara Cara oranges and Minneolas.

Sunkist Growers, in Valencia, Calif., sees these same varieties resonating with consumers. “In today’s foodie culture, consumers are excited to learn about food and try new things, and in citrus, this means specialty varieties,” asserts Joan Wickham, manager for advertising and public relations, adding that demand for such varieties grows “as consumers learn more about them and appreciate their distinctive qualities.”

To capitalize on this interest Wickham recommends that retailers educate consumers about these varieties at the point of purchase with displays signage or packaging.

Sunkist offers a variety of retail tools to promote the various attributes of citrus varieties along with usage ideas and recipes. Notes Wickham “Due to new printing capabilities we can customize bins and other point-of-sale materials with a one-week lead time allowing retailers to quickly execute promotional programs in a way that fits their stores’ unique formats and needs.”

“We’ve seen a good boost in citrus consumption throughout the year, with huge mountains of fruit sold on a weekly basis from fall through the winter, and we expect to see a lift in sales again this year.”
—James Milne, The Oppenheimer Group

This ad will auto-close in 10 seconds