Ever since Eve tempted Adam apples have been in demand. Today, new varieties, a proliferation of pre-cut items and wider availability of organic options keep excitement in the category high.
The good news for retailers is that apple sales are growing in both dollar and volume, generally an indicator that consumers are willing to pay more for great-tasting, high-quality products, say industry observers.
Growers add that the upcoming crop is expected to be strong, more good news for retailers, following an off-crop last year. Not only are more apples—and a greater variety—arriving in stores, they are arriving in better condition. Consumers are also viewing apples as a viable, value-oriented healthy snack option. All of which is helping to move sales forward, says Mac Riggan, director of marketing for Chelan, Wash.-based Chelan Fresh Marketing.
Much of the sales growth is driven by sales of pre-sliced apples. Howard Nager, vice president marketing for Domex Superfresh Growers, based in Yakima, Wash., says these items bring an added level of convenience and excitement to the category.
“Sliced apples are showing up everywhere, from McDonald’s to Subway and many other foodservice locations,” says Nager. As demand has risen retailers are giving these sliced items more shelf space, he adds.
Sales of organic apples are also on the rise as the segment has enjoyed steady movement and strong pricing. Addie Pobst, organic integrity and logistics lead for Viva Tierra Organic, based in Sedro-Woolley, Wash., says the demand for organic fruit has escalated in recent years and foresees interest holding steady for some time. She adds that retailers are getting behind organic as well.
The reasons people choose organic products are diverse and some say taste is definitely a factor. “We hear from consumers who are choosing organics because they say organics taste better and are generally fresher,” says Pobst.
Organic or not, when it comes to favorite apple varieties observers say consumers may have a difficult time singling out just one. However, according to recent industry figures, by sheer numbers it appears Gala is tops, leading in both volume and dollars. By volume, Red Delicious, Fuji, Granny Smith and Honeycrisp round out the top five. In dollars, two through five are Honeycrisp, Red Delicious, Fuji and Granny Smith. “Consumers have shown with their pocketbooks that they are willing to pay a premium price for fruit that tastes great,” says Suzanne Wolter, director of marketing for Rainier Fruit Co. based in Selah, Wash. “Honeycrisp sales are the most incredible example of this trend.”
While the tried-and-true varieties certainly have a strong following, observers say one of the biggest and exciting trends taking place is coming from the growth in the “other” category as defined by Nielsen. Varieties such as Lady Alice, Jazz, Pink Lady, Pacific Rose and Ambrosia continued to grow in both dollar and volume sales.
Wolter says growers’ and packers’ intention of sending only the finest product to market when building demand for a new variety, plays a key role in growth. “Poor quality due to overproduction and lack of rotation is a death sentence,” she says.
For New York State apples, McIntosh and Empire are top favorites, closely followed by Gala, Fuji and Jonagold. Jim Allen, president and CEO of the New York Apple Association, based in Fishers, N.Y., says classics such as Cortland and Macoun still hold prominent positions as do Cameo, Braeburn, Red and Golden Delicious and Crispin. “Everyone’s favorite, the Honeycrisp continues to grow in popularity and volume. We are proud of the fact that New York Northern grown Honeycrisp are often labeled the best tasting Honeycrisp around,” says Allen.
Nager says this year he is most excited about Autumn Glory, Domex’s proprietary variety that is harvested in mid-October. He describes the taste as having an old-fashioned apple flavor with honey-type sweetness and hints of cinnamon.
“Every grower is searching for the next Honeycrisp and my guess is the next hot apple variety will be an offshoot of this popular apple,” says Dan Wohlford, national marketing representative for Oneonta Starr Ranch Growers, based in Wenatchee, Wash. In the meantime, he anticipates excitement around some of the newer Fuji strains this year. “Many of these apples not only taste and present well, they mature a bit earlier which means we can get them in stores sooner.”
Finding the next hit, however, does not happen overnight. Growers such as Oneonta Starr spend years developing new varieties, many of which never make it into the produce aisle. “In addition to taste and appearance the fruit needs to grow well in our region and must store and ship well too,” says Wohlford.
Officials with the Michigan Apple Committee are excited about their premium varieties, Honeycrisp and Jonagold, this season. Diane Smith, executive director for the Lansing, Mich.-based committee says these apples have consistently ranked number No.1 and No. 2 in consumer research against the same varieties grown in other states. “We know consumers look for them in stores, so we have developed signage and packaging to help differentiate Michigan Honeycrisp and Michigan Jonagold in the marketplace,” she says.
In the autumn months apples and new apple varieties may garner most of the attention in the produce section, but retailers should by no means underestimate the popularity of pears—specifically ripe pears.
According to a study conducted in 2012 by the Pear Bureau Northwest, ripe pears outsell non-ripe pears by 19.5%. “Pears are a high impulse-purchase item and shoppers often want to eat or cook with pears within one or two days of purchase,” says Kevin Moffitt, president and CEO of the Pear Bureau Northwest, based in Milwaukie, Ore. “We are thrilled to see continued interest on the part of retailers to partner with us to develop ripening programs in order to meet consumer demand.”
Influenced by all the excitement the new varieties of apples are generating, pear consumers are looking for new tastes and varieties too. “While there are not as many new varieties of pears on the market in comparison to apples there are around ten main pear varieties, most of which are new to the typical U.S. consumer,” says Moffitt.
The industry as a whole is paying much more attention to providing pears that are ready to eat. “As it has done with bananas and avocados, we anticipate that the ripening program will really give sales in the category a boost,” says Mac Riggan, director of marketing for Chelan, Wash.-based Chelan Fresh Marketing. At Chelan, Bartlett pears are the most popular, followed up by D’Anjou and Bosc.
Officials at the Rainier Fruit Co. were instrumental in pushing for industry guidelines for conditioned pears. In 2005 the Selah, Wash.-based company built ripening rooms specifically designed to for pears. Additionally, Rainier packs conditioned pears in vented euro boxes to ensure consistent ripening throughout the pallet and through the distribution channel. Wolter says retailers executing a pear-ripening program have more than doubled their sales. “This program has already shown it has the potential to change the category,” she says.
Dan Wohlford, national marketing representative for Oneonta Starr Ranch Growers, based in Wenatchee, Wash., agrees. “There’s no doubt preconditioning has helped get consumers to consider pears more frequently,” he says. “It has instilled confidence that the pear they just picked up is ready to eat.”
In addition to preconditioning programs, interest in organic is also driving pear sales. Nager believes as more organic varieties and availability increases, this trend will remain strong for some time.