Walk into any Whole Foods in the US between the months of January and April, and it's impossible to miss: orange and purple cardboard tubs stacked on top of one another with gigantic, shrivelled-looking oranges piled into pyramids. The boxes read "Sumo Citrus: Enormously good to eat," "easy to peel," "seedless," and "so sweet." They're strategically placed less than ten feet from the automatic doors. Customers who pay even the slightest bit of attention are practically forced to see them, and then, hopefully, wonder what they are.
The Sumo has recently made waves on social media — Eva Chen is a fan — yet the trend seems to have started elsewhere. In the past few months, every time I mention the fruit, I am met with casual comments like, "Oh, yeah. I love Sumos," as if they've been eating them for years and didn't, like me, just recently discover them thanks to intense supermarket signage.
Kara Nielsen, vice president of trends and marketing at food and beverage product development agency CCD Helmsman, says the Sumo's success story speaks to the history of branded fruit that's been unfolding over the last ten years or so. "[Companies] are working to have a section in the market or a special, free-standing merchandised cardboard container or platform for more signage. The Sumo falls into that." Thanks to the rise of fruits that are specially engineered to taste better and be more "user-friendly," the produce section has gotten a lot more competitive, so companies have to work harder to set their fruit apart.
Nielsen points to NatureSweet Cherubs tomatoes that are packaged in those beautifully-designed bubbly dome containers as an example as well as POM Wonderful, which spent a lot of money doing scientific studies to legitimise the nutritional benefits of pomegranates. "These are all ways that companies are trying to stand out," says Nielsen.
This strategy has been effective with Sumos, seeing as people all over the country share photos of the displays in their local grocery stores. In addition to their prime placement and architectural displays, the Sumo signage also relays an insistent message: "It's Sumo Citrus season. Don't miss it!" That particular urgency is key. "We have been trained very well by food marketers to pick up the pace and hurry into our store to pick up limited time offers, whether it's something like the latest Oreo flavour or something at McDonald's. There's a consumer behaviour pattern that understands, 'Now's the time to splurge and get it,'" says Nielsen
The Sumo's rise is also directly tied to its growth timeline. In 2011, David Karp, a pomologist and writer who refers to himself as a "fruit detective," wrote a piece in the Los Angeles Times revealing that after over ten years of trying to get the Dekopon, Japan's "most prized and expensive citrus," to America, one citrus company called Suntreat Packing & Shipping had successfully harvested the first crop that was ready for market. At that time, thanks to focus groups, Suntreat rebranded the Dekopon as the Sumo, an homage to the citrus' Japanese heritage, size, and shape.
Despite the fact that the Sumo first became available in February of 2011, it's not as though people all over the country immediately started obsessing about it on Instagram. According to Karp, the first crop was small and was primarily sold at Whole Foods Markets and Asian grocery stores in California. Around the time that Suntreat's Sumos came to market, other growers became interested in them, so as Karp reported, the California authorities re-acquired Dekopon buds and released them as a "publicly available variety."
It then took at least seven years for Suntreat's competitors to begin harvesting their Sumo crops, which means, the number of Sumos available vastly increased during the 2018 citrus season. "When they first became available, they were in very limited quantities," Nick Moless, Whole Foods Market's principal produce buyer confirmed to Refinery29. "As trees have matured and new orchards have been planted, the volume of Sumos available has grown as well as the length of the season — it's now more than three months long. Initially, we only offered Sumo Citrus in a few regions, but eventually expanded the offering nationwide."
Branding the Sumos, erecting in-door displays, and expanding availability helped with name recognition and spread the word that there's more to the fruit than its somewhat off-putting wrinkly exterior, but of course, some customers need more than words on an orange cardboard palette to be truly convinced the citrus is worth spending $3 (£2.30!) on. I can't tell you how many citruses have been described to me as "easy to peel" only to quickly prove my bitten-down fingernail are actually inadequate for the job. The Sumo, however, truly is the easiest to peel fruit I've ever encountered, but that's a detail most consumers need to learn from someone they trust — like a friend or, a more digital age confidant, an influencer.
When Eva Chen posts story after story about Sumos and how easy they are to peel, people listen, as evidenced by all the Instagram photos of Sumos that Chen is now tagged in. When the Sumo shows up on Cupcake and Cashmere's monthly "Our World" list where Emily Schuman and her team share the food, products, and entertainment they're currently obsessed with, followers go out and buy them. And, since this citrus does live up to all the user-friendly hype, the trend grows.
A friend of mine even admitted to me she discovered the Sumo in one of those ASMR videos where you just watch and listen to people eat food. The up-close view and magnified sounds made it very clear how easy the citrus was to peel. "After that, I immediately wanted to try one," she told me. "I looked up where they were sold in my town that day and have been buying them ever since."