Clementines have been such sweet sellers this year that some smaller US grocery store firms found themselves left out of this fruit's distribution loop from Spain. While many grocers say the small mandarin-type orange is becoming a new US staple, others say demand is slack.

However, US imports have been rising sharply for what was once nothing more than a Christmas stocking-stuffer in isolated areas of the country, according to the US Department of Agriculture. There seems to be a bigger supply of clementines this year nationwide as well as across the Fort Worth/Dallas area. Kroger, Albertson's and some other grocery chains are offering more of the fruit for a longer selling period.

"We haven't been able to get them this year," said Steve Zettler, co-owner of the Hurst IGA and Harvest Supermarket IGA stores in Hurst and Saginaw, near Fort Worth, Texas.

Indeed, some Albertson's stores may have overstocked the candy-sweet and virtually seedless fruit that peels as easily as a tangerine. "They're selling well. We still just have a lot of them," said one Albertsons
store produce department manager in Irving, Texas, near Dallas.

Clementines have only become available in many stores from coast to coast within the last two-three years, the Associated Press reported. The fruit has only this season become more affordable to consumers.

Regular prices that had been around US$7.99 per 5-pound crate at Christmas a year ago are now in the US$4.99-5.99 range, and even as low as US$3.99 in some stores. Sold by the pound, common prices now range from US$1.59 to US$1.99 a pound, compared to the previously common US$2.99 a pound. That compares to the larger, common navel oranges typically selling for 50-70 cents and maybe up to 79 cents a pound during the same holiday period.

By Worth Wren, staff writer