4 Ways to Stone Fruit Success

stone fruit

With supply low for the classics, new varieties could help push a bigger ring this summer.

Sweet juicy peaches, nectarines, plums and apricots are among the iconic fruits of summer. Even with availability from Chile in the winter, these stone fruits still evoke nostalgic remembrances of outside picnics and fruit so succulent that one bite produced a stream of juice dripping from chin to arms. Since there are supply gaps between Southern and Northern Hemisphere stone fruit, this builds customer anticipation and creates a huge opportunity for seasonal excitement and sales.

“Stone fruits are extremely important to produce department sales in the summer, right up there with berries and cherries,” says John Savidan, produce director at Bristol Farms and Lazy Acres, a 15-store chain based in Carson, CA.

This seasonal opportunity is evident in the numbers. While peaches, nectarines, plums and apricots collectively represented 1.8 percent of total produce sales for the 52 weeks ending Feb. 25, 2017, per FreshFacts data supplied by the Chicago-based Nielsen Perishables Group, third quarter sales accounted for a whopping 4 percent of total produce sales. This compares to first-, second- and fourth-quarter category contributions at 0.6, 1.9 and 0.5 percent, respectively.

Here are four ways retailers can sell more stone fruit year-round.

1. Stock What Customers Want

“We carry the basics, such as peaches, nectarines and plums, as well as a variety to keep it interesting for our customers like tree-ripe fruit, white-fleshed peaches and nectarines, and pluots,” says Marc Goldman, produce director at Morton Williams Supermarkets, a 13-store chain based in New York.

Peaches are king of the stone fruit category, representing 48.7 percent of dollar sales for the 52 weeks ending Feb. 25, 2017, according to Nielsen Perishables Group’s FreshFacts. Nectarines came in second, at 28.6 percent of category sales, followed by plums at 20.2 percent and apricots at 2.5 percent.

Peaches & Nectarines. The popularity of peaches owes to this fruit being grown in more states than nectarines. For example, California, South Carolina, Georgia and New Jersey are the top four peach production states in the United States, based on USDA Agricultural Marketing Resource Center information. Meanwhile, more than 90 percent of the nectarines in the United States are grown in California. This year, East Coast peach availability will be light due to weather-related issues.

“A historically warm winter means the fruit, especially that which typically harvests in July, didn’t get the chill hours it needed,” says Will McGehee, fifth generation peach farmer and partner at the Genuine Georgia Group LLC, in Fort Valley, GA. “That means our season runs from the third week in May, when we started harvest, to about the second week in July; then availability starts to peter out.”

Meanwhile, a freeze in late March wiped out 80 to 90 percent of the South Carolina peach crop, according to Martin Eubanks, assistant commissioner of the South Carolina Department of Agriculture, Columbia, SC. “We’re unsure of the packing volume we’ll have for commercial sales in July and August, but retailers purchasing other produce from our state should keep in close contact with their growers,” he says.

New Jersey peach growers who pack under the “Jersey Fruit” and “Just Picked” labels have been fortunate weather-wise, says Bob Von Rohr, director of marketing and customer relations for Sunny Valley International in Glassboro, NJ. “We hope to see a fairly normal full crop; we’ll start harvesting the first week of July, or a little earlier.”

For the past decade, some stone fruit acreage in California has been replanted with Mandarins, almonds, grapes and kiwi, resulting in a reduction of about 40 percent of the crop, says Jon McClarty, president of HMC Farms, Kingsburg, CA. “Stone fruit is temperamental to grow and has lost some ground to items that offer growers a better return.”

Yellow-fleshed peaches and nectarines are the classic staples.

“We are seeing more interest by the U.S. market for white flesh or sub-acid varieties of both peaches and nectarines. In the past, these were more of export items,” says McClarty.

Plums, Pluots, & Plumcots. There are hundreds of plum varieties with red-, black- and green-skinned the most popular. However, “pluots are taking share away from traditional plums,” says Jeff Simonian, vice president of sales for the Simonian Fruit Company, based in Fowler, CA.

Michael Elwinger, marketing manager for Kingsburg Orchards in Kingsburg, CA, agrees. “Pluots really take over plums in July and August, when it’s hottest and the sugars really rise and volume comes on. Typically, retailers will display and promote four to five different colors of pluots at a time, and they will sample the fruit. You can’t do the same thing with peaches and nectarines since there isn’t so much of a difference in skin color among varieties.”

Pluots are a specific cross between plums and apricots that have a registered trademark, while plumcot is the term for more general crosses between these two fruits.

New varietals like the pluot tend not to cannibalize other similar items; rather they offer incremental sales, says Michael Walsh, stone fruit category manager for sourcing at Robinson Fresh, headquartered in Eden Prairie, MN. “The new and exciting varietals can expand consumers’ baskets and get them coming back looking for more.”

Apricots. Apricots are available from April to July from California and June to August from Washington. “There’s really no work being done to lengthen the season. Apricots are one of those truly seasonal fruits,” says Simonian.

Varietals. Bristol Farms’ Savidan seeks out lesser-known varietals to offer customers something different and to stimulate sales in the category. “This means working with growers on varieties with incredible flavor that not everyone carries. Examples are the white-fleshed Polar Ice Nectarine, Black Splendor Plum, Black Raspberry Pluots and Plumogranate.”

2. Offer Convenient Packs

Bulk displays that allow customers to feel, smell and choose their stone fruit by the piece continue to be popular. However, “demand is increasing for all types of consumer packs, with the primary vehicles being clamshells and bags,” says Dovey Plain, marketing coordinator for Family Tree Farms in Reedley, CA. “These add the convenience of a unique UPC for the product, as well as the ability to more fully describe the product with package design and labeling.”

This season, Genuine Georgia, a sales and marketing cooperative in Fort Valley, GA, introduced its 2-pound grab-and-go pouch bag of small-sized fruit under its new “Georgia Juicys” brand. “This fits with the trend for small-sized, kid-friendly fruit like Cuties or Halos in Mandarins, Lil Snappers in apples and pears, and Mighties in kiwi. It also answers the need to have a brand within the brand of Georgia Grown,” says McGehee.

3. Display A Buffet Of Choices

Stone fruit is offered in large displays in the front lobbies of Bristol Farms’ stores during summer. Similarly, at Morton Williams Supermarkets, summertime displays are prominent. “We keep all the stone fruit together,” says Goldman. “After that, it can vary by store. For example, if we have two islands, then we’ll put the basic southern peaches and California nectarines on one and the higher-end tree-ripe and white-fleshed fruit on the other.”

When domestic stone fruit is available, roughly May through October, customers are more interested in new varieties and experiences, so it’s best to offer five to eight SKUs, including organics, recommends Robinson Fresh’s Walsh. “When the Chilean season is in full swing, roughly January to April, it’s best to carry three to five SKUs. Figure your staples — yellow peach, yellow nectarine and plum, with some white flesh and/or new varieties mixed in.”

There are great opportunities for retailers to promote some of the more unique varieties of stone fruit available out of Chile, such as Purple Heart Plums, Emerald Candy Pluots and Red Grenade Pluots, says Karen Brux, managing director of North America for the Chilean Fresh Fruit Association, San Carlos, CA. “Retailers are calling out specific varieties and giving their shoppers more information on the different flavor profiles. This is a great way of creating a catchy display and elevating the entire stone fruit category.”

Cross-merchandising displays can be effective sales tools. “Put some peaches next to pie ingredients and a small recipe book,” says Walsh.

4. Peachy-Keen Promotions

A variety of stone fruit is featured in weekly ads all summer at Morton Williams Supermarkets. “It might be a southern peach and tree-ripe nectarine one week, then a California nectarine and tree-ripe peach. Essentially one basic and one high-end item each week for the domestic season,” says Goldman.

There are several other ways to promote stone fruit in addition to price. For example, Bristol Farms features peaches in a month-long celebration in July. This doesn’t just include whole peaches, such as the Summer Flames, Elegant Lady’s and Zee Lady’s from local growers that are spotlighted for a week each, but peach products throughout the store. For example, there is a limited-time peach sausage in Meats, a peach sushi roll in Seafood, peach salsa and grilled peaches dressed with an aged balsamic vinegar in the grab-and-go Deli, peach tarts in the Bakery; peach jams and jellies in Grocery, and even plastic molds to make peach pops in the Bristol Kitchens housewares. “It’s truly a whole store peach promotion,” says Savidan.

Social media is another avenue for retailers to promote. Some growers are assisting in this with ready-made content.

“This season, we’re shooting 15-second videos, such as one of us standing in an orchard and telling customers this fruit will be in their store in two weeks. It’s simple. We’re shooting these with an iPhone; we are not bringing Hollywood into it. But we think it’s a great way for us as growers to connect with our retailers and their customers,” says McGehee.

The Flavor Factor

An inconsistent eating experience — in other words, a sweet juicy peach one day and a bland dry one the next — is one of the biggest detriments to stone fruit sales at retail. This is an all too prevalent problem in an age where the distance from picking to point-of-sale can be up the coast, cross-country or intercontinental. Handling practices have long been the way to improve this quality quandary. Today, a combination of horticultural practices and handling techniques that span from the nursery to the consumer’s refrigerator is proving to help bring consistency to stone fruit’s flavor mojo.

“Consumers look for a good eating piece of fruit and finding it can be a crap shoot,” says Jeff Simonian, vice president of sales for the Simonian Fruit Company, Fowler, CA. “That’s why we’ve gone back to the nursery level and looked for better eating varieties.”

This is the third season of increasing commercial volumes of the Giumarra Companies’ Nature’s Partner DulceVida line of red apricots and white, black and yellow nectarines. The Los Angeles-headquartered company holds the exclusive license with a fourth-generation breeder consortium in France.

“We are focusing on this proprietary program and have the right of first refusal on some 15 to 17 varieties of stone fruit,” says Jeannine Martin, director of sales for Giumarra’s stone fruit division in Reedley, CA. “This means we have the potential to bring more of these varieties into commercial production, possibly including peaches. We are really excited to have the rights to market these flavorful varieties.”

Beyond breeding, harvesting practices come into play. For example, it’s important for growers to pack the fruit the same day it’s harvested. Holding fruit overnight can result in off-flavors and mealiness, says Denver Schutz, technical services manager for Gerawan Farming, headquartered in Fresno, CA. “To achieve the sweet juicy fruit that consumers demand, a grower needs to harvest more often; as much as 10 times per tree,” says Schutz.

Jon McClarty, president of HMC Farms in Kingsburg, CA, agrees. “Ripeness is key. People often confuse softness and ripeness. We consider ripening starts and ends on the tree. Softening can occur on or off the tree. We are a big tree-ripe house. Secondly, brix is a component of taste, but only a portion of the taste. There are varieties that taste great at brix levels that are lower than some bland or boring-tasting varieties. People seem to get fixed on brix levels because you can measure them, but a refractometer isn’t going to tell you if the customer is going to enjoy the product.”

One of the big challenges is the proper handling at store level to ensure great eating stone fruit.

“The basic rule is to check the pressure with a penetrometer or take a bite,” says Dovey Plain, marketing coordinator for Family Tree Farms, Reedley, CA. “The pressure will guide your handling. Firm fruit should be stored out of the cooler in the back room and allowed to fully ripen. Fruit that is ripe and aromatic makes for a sure sale. Temperatures in retail coolers can damage firm fruit, inhibiting its ability to ever ripen. Once fruit has softened, it is safe to refrigerate. If stores find themselves with an oversupply of soft fruit, place some in the cooler until sales catch up with supply.”

Finally, “retailers need to inform customers on the proper way to handle the fruit once they get it home to enhance the eating experience,” says Bob Von Rohr, director of marketing and customer relations for Sunny Valley International, Glassboro, NJ. “This leads to repeat sales.”