Hitting the jackpot

Nutritional benefits and an extended selling season have made cherries a hot item in the produce section.

There is no doubt that staying healthy is at the forefront of people’s minds. Just watch as consumers wander through a supermarket stocking-up on fresh fruits and vegetables and scanning boxes for ingredients. National attention to dietary health has consumers watching what they eat and reading nutritional labels—and cherries have many good things to say.

The health benefits of cherries have greatly increased the fruits’ popularity, say industry observers. In addition to being packed with antioxidants and vitamins, they provide anthocyanins. “Current research is being conducted by the Northwest Cherry Growers focusing on the impact of anthocyanins in sweet cherries on preventing and treating prostate cancer,” says Suzanne Wolter, director of marketing at Rainier Fruit Co., based in Selah, Wash. “Further preliminary results suggest cherries may have an impact on inflammation and blood pressure, which if confirmed, will have implications for a number of chronic inflammatory diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular disease.”

Observers also believe that promoting the high concentration of antioxidants in cherries could have the same affect as it did for blueberries—a boost in sales as consumers became aware of the benefits. Its about promoting them as a healthy product: “Cherries are a super food with all sorts of benefits—and not just tart cherries, which many people associate with cherry juices,” says Roger Pepperl, marketing director for Stemilt Growers, based in Wenatchee, Wash. “Sweet cherries not only provide antioxidants but also help with joint health. If someone has any kind of joint swelling, and they eat a fair amount of cherries for a few weeks, it will help it go away.”

Some growers are redesigning their packaging and display bins to portray a healthy image and share this nutritional information. Rainier Fruit Co.’s bins, for example, graphically portray an image of freshness and high quality, attributes that “consumers associate with the healthfulness of food,” says Wolter.

Growers are also further developing the POS materials they make available to retailers. Columbia Marketing International (CMI), based in Wenatchee, Wash., puts out a pocket card each year and has created some POS signage that discusses the nutritional benefits. Others are reaching consumers directly with in-store demos and taste-testings.

Chelan Fresh is heavily concentrating on in-store demos this year. Mac Riggan, vice president of marketing for the Chelan, Wash.-based grower, says only 30% to 35% of people are considered cherry consumers, so there is a huge up side to going after that other 65% who do not eat them on a regular basis. “We know that getting something into someone’s mouth that is right in front of him or her, there is an 80% chance they will buy it,” he says. “And it is not about selling cherries cheaper, we need a good value product at a reasonable price so we can make a profit and let the customer decide the value.”

The new season

While cherry marketing is undergoing a transformation, so to is the cherry selling season. Advancements in technology and new varieties have allowed growers to extend the cherry growing season, thus allowing retailers to extend the selling season. Having Northwest cherries available from June through the first of part of September is a real plus to the produce department, says Scott Marboe, director of marketing for Oneonta Starr Ranch Growers, based in Wenatchee, Wash. “The packing technology is state-of-the-art and there are so many more cherries available now for a longer period of time. The fruit is bigger and sweeter than many years past. I think this is one reason they are so popular.”

The season is now beginning earlier in southern California with low chill varieties that require less cold weather, such as Coral, a new variety being grown by Stemilt Growers. Traditionally, the grower would begin harvesting cherries in southern California at the end of May or beginning of June; however, now they start picking them the last few days of April or beginning of May.

The same goes in Washington State where Stemilt continues to extend the season. For example, last year Stemilt was picking cherries up through the first week of September. Already known for late cherries, the grower continues to push the limits of the season by planting late varieties at high elevations. Pepperl says it was not easy. The company had to establish water reservoirs at the top of Stemilt Hill, in addition to making plant modifications to increase capacity and working to reduce bottlenecks in production. “We are blessed with an area we can grow late cherries. The extension of the season is a big deal because retailers make a lot of money on cherries,” he adds.

Retailers should take this shift in season into consideration when planning their promotional calendars, say observers. Since consumers tend to understand the cherry season time frame and shop with a sense of urgency, Wolter says retailers can capitalize on that urgency by elongating promotions until the end of the summer.

Often retailers base their sales on previous year’s supply, but observers advise talking to growers about the current year’s harvest and scheduling promotions around volume—instead of based on holidays, for instance. “The consumer always gets a better product when you are matching with the crop,” says Pepperl, who also suggests promoting larger volumes, such as 3- or 4-pound clamshells. “These have a higher ring, so in late July when there is a high volume of cherries available, merchandise larger clamshells on a satellite display. Customers buying for entertaining will be looking for larger quantities.”
Visit www.groceryheadquarters.com for more on cherries.

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