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Now more than ever is a great time to promote the value of a relatively inexpensive fruit. According to Gordon Hunt, director of marketing for the National Watermelon Promotion Board, the Orlando, FL-based group enjoyed success with retailers last year by encouraging merchandising watermelon's low cost per pound.

With unemployment still high and the nation still suffering a difficult economy, the message will be stronger than ever in 2010.

Mr. Hunt spoke with The Produce News Feb. 4 as he prepared for the association's board meeting Feb. 20 in Dallas. He noted that the national watermelon meetings, which run Feb. 17-20, allow the industry to compare notes on the upcoming domestic deal and evaluate what remains of the import season.

In Dallas, Mr. Hunt plans to recommend that the industry continue tying its retail and foodservice marketing "with the recessionary market we are in," he said. "We told retailers last year, 'Don't be afraid of the recession when it comes to watermelon. If you want a value orientation, we are it.'"

The board encouraged retailers to try pricing watermelons on a per-pound basis rather than per melon. A price of $6.99 may look high on a single watermelon, but if the fruit is priced at 75 cents per pound, "that is a good price," he said.

Retailers have told Mr. Hunt that in these tight times, "everyone is coming in with a shopping list, and they stick with it unless there is a real good reason to add something else." Therein lies the importance of emphasizing watermelon value. "You have seen the hit that exotics and organics are taking," he said. Watermelon by contrast "has done well, and we expect it to continue to do well, particularly since the retailers, if they have not already, will definitely now emphasize price and value."

Consumers will continue to "stick to their list until jobs numbers rise," Mr. Hunt predicted. "We give them more and more reasons to put watermelon on their list. We are telling people at the board meeting to stick with the plan they had last year - and go more heavily to that."

Consumer recipes released by the promotional board show cost per serving, which can drop to pennies when using watermelon. Pushing a low per-pound cost of watermelon suits a tight economy "and bodes very well for us," he said. "It will give retailers more reasons to stock it."

According to Mr. Hunt, the same basic message is being taken to the foodservice industry. The marketing point for foodservice operators is that they should be serving watermelon for a variety of reasons: virtually everyone knows and likes watermelon, "so they don't have to explain what it is," he said. "They don't have to say, 'Try it. We think you'll like [it].' People will say, 'What a great idea.'"

He also noted that watermelon is easy for restaurants to prepare and that kids will say, "Sure, I'll eat that."

In 2010, Mr. Hunt expects to see "a big upsurge in foodservice sales" in part because the board is sponsoring four events by the Culinary Institute of America. The institute influences chefs who make "hundreds of millions of meal decisions."

Mr. Hunt also said that the watermelon industry is expecting "a big year" in terms of product plantings. Because of excessive wintertime rain in Mexican growing districts and cold, bad weather "all over the country," the year has seen a rough start for the industry.

(For more on watermelon, see the Feb. 15, 2010, issue of The Produce News.)