Fruits of fall

The beginning of the apple and pear season harkens year- round sales opportunities.

By Nina Amir

As summer winds down, the produce category gears up for apple and pear season. However, these days consumers find these tasty delights pretty much all year long.

Industry executives say the apple and pear category remained strong this summer even as seasonal fruits took center stage. Dan Wohlford, national marketing representative for Oneonta Starr Ranch Growers, a Wen­atchee, Wash.-based grower and shipper, explains, “Consumers recognize that apples and pears offer value and are an easy way to eat healthy.”

James S. Allen, president and chief executive officer of the New York Apple Association, based in Fishers, New York, says apple sales have remained strong. “Demand has been excellent. Sales are up,” he says.

Growers and shippers in general seem to feel excited about the 2010 apple and pear crop, and that bodes well for retail grocers. “We look for plentiful supplies on all varieties. We look for bagged fruit to be promotable again this year as well,” says Wohlford.

Apple sales volume was up 4.6% and apple sales dollars was up 1.1% in the first quarter of 2010, according to Suzanne Wolter, director of marketing for Rainier Fruit Co., a grower and shipper based in Selah, Wash. “Organic apple sales volume and dollars also saw positive increases at 13% and 11% respectively,” she says. “Pear sales volume was up 15% and sales dollars also up 6.2%.”

She points out that last season marked the largest pear crop on record and sales maintained momentum throughout the season.  “Better availability and lower pricing have helped fuel continued increased sales,” she says.

Inclement weather early in this season has impacted the cosmetic appearance of fruit in various growing districts Wolter points out. “As a result, we may see lower pack outs, which will potentially effect grower returns. Retailers however, can expect to receive the quality they are use to getting,” she says.

Cold blast

The Eastern apple supply will be less than in 2010, predicts Allen, since all three major producing areas in that region are down due to cold spring weather. “Anticipated volume will be close to the five-year average, which will provide adequate volumes for the market without oversupplying,” he says.

Weather has affected pears as well. Matt Roberts, sales manager for CF Fresh, an organic produce marketing company based in Sedro-Woolley, Wash., says that on the organic side of the category it will be a tight year for Northwest pears. “The Bartlett pear we’ll be marketing out of California will be peaking on smaller fruit than last year due to the cooler weather we’ve had.”

Dennis James, director of marketing for the Pear Bureau Northwest, based in Portland, Ore., expects “an approximately 18.5 million box crop, and that’s a 44 pound box equivalent. We are looking at a more traditional crop size year than we saw last season.”

Roberts says grocers should be aware that organics has seen a rebound on pricing from last year. “Demand is where it was before the economic crisis hit, and we are trying to keep up with that without overpricing the market,” he says.

On the convenience side of this category, Tony Freytag, director of marketing at Crunch Pak, the Cashmere, Wash.-based provider of packaged fresh slice apples, says business has surged over the last few months. “We are very encouraged by that,” he says.

Ride the health wave

Retailers can take advantage of many trends and opportunities in the apple and pear category, one of which continues to be health and wellness. While consumers can be lured by price discounts on healthy foods, taste often wins over health, cautions Wolter. Luckily, apples and pears can be promoted on taste as well as price.

Wolter points out that Federal Programs, such as Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign, present a unique opportunity for retailers to promote apples and pears because it emphasizes increased fruit and vegetable consumption.  Additionally, September is National Fruits and Veggies-More Matters Month.

Grocery items that promote antioxidants, fiber and low-glycemic health benefits have seen increases in dollar sales growth, according to industry experts. Retailers can benefit from promoting foods that offer health benefits, such as apples and pears, according to Wolter. “In a recent U.S. Apple Association consumer survey, consumers rate apples one of the most healthful fruits,” she says.

Aside from being a healthy option, apples and pears offer consumers convenience, which makes them great as snacks. Crunch Pak has seen “an explosion of the snacking category,” according to Freytag. “In the last two years we have gone from producing about 25% of our total product in small packages in what we consider the snacking category—under 6 ounces—to 40% to 45% of total category being produced in the snacking category,” he says. “Of the 1.5 million packages we produce per week, we are getting into the 600,000 to 700,000 range of just small packages that I categorize as snacking and high convenience.”

Organic growing

Organic has become a larger part of the mix at a lot of major retailers as well. “There are a lot more organic apples and pears out there than a few years ago, but the continuing growth at the retail end is sustainable,” says Roberts. “As the market grows for organics, the margins have come down some and the volume is there that they are promotable at reasonable prices.”

A number of programs are available to help retailers promote and sell apples and pears more efficiently. For example, Oneonta Starr Ranch Growers’ “Pear the Taste” program entices consumers to combine the taste of apples and pears with wines and cheeses, according to company officials. It also features tote bins and bags.

Additionally, Oneonta Starr Ranch Growers offers a “This is Crunch Time, Taste It” program that connects the taste of apples and pears and with the fact that they are healthy snacks for today’s health conscience consumer. “We are teaming up again this year with the National Breast Cancer Foundation with our ‘Healthcare and Me’ program,” Wohlford reports. A tote bag featuring a new design was added to its point-of-sale materials.

Rainier Fruit has perfected its storage regimen to make Honeycrisp apples available into March, according to company officials. Additionally, Wolter says, “We developed a high-graphic litho box that is well-suited for building retail displays to help build our brand on this particular variety.”

Ripe pear programs continue to educate consumers on how to buy pears, which increases sales tremendously. Rainier Fruit offers retailers pre-conditioned D’Anjou pears, and according to Wolter, “Retailers executing a ripe pear program have more than doubled their sales.” She says the Anjou pear is the most conducive to the process because this variety doesn’t change colors, which make it more difficult to tell when they are ripe.

The Pear Bureau Northwest continues to improve its data and analysis capabilities on core information that motivates or pushes away customers when at the pear display. “Since pears are one of the highest impulse fruits in the produce department, getting it right when the customer approaches the display is important for movement and sales opportunity,” James explains.

Additionally, the Pear Bureau continues to offer—and plans to reinvigorate—its “Check the Neck” program, which educates consumers on how to pick a ripe pear, according to organization officials.

The New York Apple Association offers handling seminars, consumer education materials, and scan data on sales and consumer preferences. Additionally, Allen says, “We are using more and more in-store electronic couponing and target marketing with retailers. Today we are able to target a specific apple customer through using coupon kiosks and hand-held scanners.”

CF Fresh continues striving to give retailers a year-round program that isn’t seasonal. “That has helped move this category up into something that isn’t a seasonal deal,” Roberts says.

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