Snacktime’s sweetheart

Cherries fill a void as consumers look for fresh healthy snack options during the hot days of summer.

Cherries have always had a place on table. Often that place was during the dessert course, either as the primary filler for pie or as the tertiary ingredient for an ice cream sundae.

However, following the lead of their fruit and vegetable counterparts in the produce department, cherries continue to find ways into new recipes and eating occasions. The number one occasion being “snacktime.”

As more consumers choose on-the-go snacking over sitting down to a meal, and replace unhealthy chips and junk food with fruits and vegetables, retailers are sitting on a potential goldmine of sales.

cherrieheart2“Three of the top consumption trends are an interest in fresh, importance on wellness and unique flavors,” says Suzanne Wolter, director of marketing for Selah, Wash.-based Rainier Fruit Co. “Consumers feel that the terms ‘fresh’ and ‘high-quality’ are closely associated with the healthfulness of a food. Highly seasonal, premium Northwest cherries are the epitome of ‘fresh’ during the summer produce season.”

Research also shows that consumers are willing to spend more for cherries. According to The Nielsen Perishables Group, the average amount spent on cherries per trip for the 52 weeks ended February 22, 2014 was $7.49, compared to $6.28 last year. Wolter says there is a consumer willingness to spend on new and unique items, and as one of the few remaining seasonal items, cherries remain unique.

The seasonal nature of cherries is both a selling point and an obstacle, say industry observers; retailers have about eight to 10 weeks during the summer months to capture sales. That means they have to hit the ground running—fast.

Most observers agree, cherries are a huge incremental sales item and are very impulse driven. Despite a 23.3% decrease in unit sales (for the 52 weeks ended January 25, 2014), which observers attribute to a smaller crop as a result of the weather, there was only a 6.3% decrease in dollar sales. More so, officials at Wenatchee, Wash.-based Oneonta Starr Ranch Growers says some of their customers saw sales increases nationwide. “They met or exceeded their targets and provided well-priced fruit at highly visible locations in their departments,” says Scott Marboe, director of marketing, for the Wash.-based company.

The convenience factor of cherries is one of the fruit’s biggest selling points. To meet consumers’ growing preference for snacking, many growers have introduced stand-up pouch bags that add not only convenience to the eating process, but are also more display-friendly.

A number of growers have been using the gusseted bags for a few seasons now, and they have been very well received. More and more retailers are requesting them, say observers.

“Retailers feel like it is the way to go,” says Bob Mast, president of Wenatchee, Wash.-based CMI. “For years we have been putting the produce department’s most expensive pieces of fruit in the cheapest possible packaging. The pouch bag highlights the gourmet aspect of the cherries and gives it a much better presentation.”

It also encourages retailers to single-stack the fruit on the display, he adds, rather than packing them up three or four high and crushing the cherries.

To show off its package design, CMI developed a two-box cherry shipper that can be displayed around the store, in addition to the produce aisle. “If retailers can get cherries outside the department and in front of consumers, such as by the registers, there is a chance they will add them to their carts. The shipper can drive some serious incremental sales,” Mast says.

Chelan Fresh, based in Chelan, Wash., has taken the on-the-go convenience feature of cherries one step further with its new Cup O’ Cherries. The 8-ounce cup of stemless cherries has two compartments—one to dispense the cherries and a second, self-contained compartment to discard the pits.

The Cup O’ Cherries display-ready cases ship with an insert to display the benefits of the product, and can be used in the cut fresh fruit section or cross-merchandised elsewhere in the store, says Mac Riggan, director of marketing for Chelan Fresh.

Here come the Rainiers
Cross merchandising cherry displays in high-traffic areas and rotating them to keep them fresh is a major factor in grabbing attention, say observers; it is especially helpful in promoting Rainer cherries.

The Rainier variety is still unfamiliar to many consumers, offering a lot of growth potential to retailers. “Cross merchandise Rainiers in season with the dark sweet cherry and take advantage of promotional items, as well as what the Cherry Commission offers, to build awareness and consumer loyalty,” says Marboe, adding that National Rainier Day is July 11. “This is always a great way to promote both varieties while focusing on the ever growing popularity of Rainiers.”

Mast says that CMI has also been educating consumers on this “premium variety” and the differences between Rainier and sweet red varieties. CMI has introduced various elements like its Pocket Pro, a quick-reference tool designed specifically for produce managers, and varietal cards that discuss the different sugar levels.

Observers say what it comes down to is education. A single fact or piece of information can be the difference between a pouch of cherries being passed over or put in the cart.

Specifically, consumers are looking for nutritional information. Increasing national attention to dietary health has consumers and retailers focusing on the healthier aspect of potential purchases, Wolter says. “Cherries are filled with antioxidants, high in fiber, loaded with vitamin C and free of fat, cholesterol and sodium. They are low on the glycemic index and just 20 cherries provided 25 mg of anthocyanins.

“According to the results of a 2013 study releases by researchers at the USDA-Agricultural Research Service Western Human Nutrition Research Center, consuming sweet cherries may reduce risk or modify the severity of inflammatory diseases,” she adds.

In addition to including information on POS materials, Chelan Fresh has focused a lot of its educational efforts on sampling. Company officials say that there are a lot of consumers who do not eat cherries: “We are doing everything we can to make sure that people know that cherries are out there,” says Riggan. “You have to get consumers to taste them to do that.”

Consumer outreach is the way forward, Riggan says, adding that there a lot of organizations and retailers that have invested in these efforts.

unical_200_cherry(1)Technology to the rescue
Cherry growers and retailers are hoping for a larger crop than last year, and it is looking good so far, say industry observers. That is as long as Mother Nature behaves.

Growers may have little influence over the quality of the crop, but they do have control over the quality of cherries that hit the shelves. More are investing in technological advancements, such as optical sorting lines, to help them deliver the best of the crop.

Oneonta Starr Ranch Growers and CMI, both based in Wenatchee, Wash., are upgrading the sorting systems in their facilities. CMI is installing a Compaq optical sorting system that can sort by color and size. “It really improves the consistency that will focus our cherry program on size, quality and grade,” says Bob Mast, CMI president.

Oneonta, on the other hand, is installing a UniTec optical sorting line to improve its ability to detect grading, size and quality. The company is really excited about the new state-of-the-art equipment, says Scott Marboe, director of marketing. “The new line will be more efficient: It will improve speed, handle the cherries more delicately, have the capacity to run more fruit and pack the fruit more proficiently.”

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