It would be hard to pinpoint a bigger fresh produce success story in recent years than the small but mighty mandarin.

Boosted by competing brands with considerable marketing budgets, the easy-peel fruit has vaulted past newcomer status and into mainstay territory, and its journey has had an effect on the produce department as a whole. We spoke with Anne-Marie Roerink, principal of San Antonio, Texas-based 210 Analytics, to get a feel for some of the ways the small fruit has made a big impression.


“From a growth perspective, tangerines are a powerful story for the produce department,” Roerink said. “According to IRI data for the multi-outlet channels, tangerines represent 5.5% of all fruit sold, but they represent 23% of new dollars between 2015 and today. In other words, the category has been punching far above its weight in delivering growth for fresh fruit. And in all, tangerines have delivered more than $525 million in new dollars in the past five years.”

Roerink noted that there is one caveat in that growth slowed to single digits – 3.2% - last year. The fruit has actually declined 4% over the last 52 weeks, she said. There is another area within the category that is experiencing growth, however. Organic tangerine sales have grown by nearly $14 million since 2015.

Snack appeal

“The strong branding in the mandarin category combined with very strong positioning as a must-eat healthy kid snack have definitely contributed to reminding shoppers about healthy snacking,” Roerink said. “Consumers want to integrate more produce but are struggling to break out of their routines. Snacking is a consumption occasion that has always been important to fruit, but the changing ways of eating have put a whole new level of emphasis on snacks. 

“According to Hartman, 50% of all eating occasions are now snacks and 57% of parents say snacking is integral to their kids’ day,” Roerink said. “By making the snacking connection more clearly for mandarins – in particular to parents – produce snacking re-emerged on the radar. This, without a doubt, has contributed to shoppers starting looking for other produce snacking opportunities as well, driving interest in items such as grape tomatoes, snack cucumbers and snack peppers.”

Brand bonanza

The dominant brands in the category are Cuties and Halos, and the consumer-facing marketing efforts by both Bakersfield, Calif.-based Sun Pacific and Los Angeles-based The Wonderful Co. have set examples of what can happen when consumers connect with brands instead of commodities.

“I believe it has had tremendous impact in a department that traditionally did not have a great deal of branding,” Roerink said. “Brands started to become stronger in the meat department first and have been a tremendous growth driver for meat for years. Likewise, the success of the extensive marketing campaigns by major grower-shippers has created differentiated advantages in the produce department.

“In some cases, branded items have created such strong positions that consumers refer to them by the brand versus the product,” Roerink said. “That means in a department where space is hotly contested, shoppers are now expecting to see certain brands. For others to compete, they too have to start building differentiated advantages and invest in brand equity.”

Opportunities ahead

“Organic as a percentage of total produce dollars stands at 7.1%, and if we look at fruit only, organic sales are about 6.7% of total fruit sales,” Roerink said. “Now if we do that same math for tangerines alone, only 0.9% of dollars come from organic tangerines. That would certainly indicate that there is untapped possibility for organic offerings, particularly keeping in mind the kid-focused snacking nature. Having children is still an important point of entry into organic produce for many households.

“Sales growth would certainly point to this being a growth area,” Roerink said. “Organic dollars for tangerines have increased tremendously and were up nearly 26% over 2018.”

She noted that perhaps the biggest opportunity, however, lies in usage occasions.

“Keeping in mind the natural portability and snacking nature of mandarins, the biggest growth in my mind is continued positioning as a healthy snack, sweet little treat or even breakfast or dessert,” Roerink said. “Driving different consumption occasions for fruits and vegetables consumers eat anyway continues to be a big opportunity for the mature category of produce in general.”


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