The apple is almost the perfect commodity: Lots of variety, low shrink, portable and super healthy. What’s not to love?
Originally printed in the January 2022 issue of Produce Business.
When the calendar flips from December to January, consumer thinking flips, too. The year-end indulgences prompt an austerity and healthful mindset of a new beginning — and apples are a tasty means of making the switch.
Store merchandising should reflect the change, with less emphasis on baking and more on salads and even appetizers and party snacks. That’s not to say that baking should be abandoned as a hook, however, apple merchandising should reflect the healthier attitudes to eating as winter proceeds.
Even as they consider ways to promote apples in the produce departments, retailers should consider how they can use electronic means, including websites and social media, to encourage sales. In-store links to preparation ideas can be a bridge between the shopping visit and eventually use.
“Apples play a very important role year-round on the retail deck, so even after we hit our peak fall sales months, apples continue to contribute strong margin opportunities to the produce department,” says Don Roper, vice president of sales and marketing, Honeybear Marketing, Brewster, WA. “It is the perfect commodity — lots of variety, many promotional opportunities, low shrink, highly portable and super healthy. All these attributes really support why retailers want a strong year-round apple program.”
Audrey Desnoyers, national business development manager and sales manager at Oppy, Vancouver, British Columbia, says in January every retailer does some kind of health promotion. “With apples being a healthy, high-in-fiber, fill-you-up and portable snack, they go really well with health messaging. Highlighting different varietals is a fun way to get folks engaged with something new, as there’s always something fresh in the apple set.”
Kelly Davis, director of produce and floral, Allegiance Retail Services, Iselin, NJ, is balancing winter baking and healthy eating in her winter apple marketing.
The EverCrisp variety has also been making its way onto the scene and warrants consideration, she adds. But currently, her January promotional plans for eating apples centers on 2-pound bags of Little Pinks, the snacking size Pink Lady apples, for dieters and children heading back to school.
Randy Bohaty, director of produce for B&R stores of Lincoln, NE, says his produce departments reset apples in the upfront position September and promote all year long. In January, citrus takes the upfront space, and apples move to the rear.
“Because of the high penetration of the category, even when it’s not peak season, we use it to draw customers further into our departments,” Bohaty says. “We cycle promoting bags with bulk to give our customers a good value and us a higher ring. We include lesser known/selling apples together with a velocity apple in ads to try to get customers to make an additional purchase. We always try to make a compound sale by tying in an item like caramel dip in both displays and ads.”
Brianna Shales, marketing director for Stemilt Growers, Wenatchee, WA, recommends regular promotions on multiple varieties at once, including organics, to build apple category growth.
“With a shorter apple crop nationally, retailers will want to look at varieties and key items within the crop to build their promotion plans,” Shales says. “The variety mix available now is very consumer-focused, with lots of Honeycrisp and organic Honeycrisp, as well as increased volumes of Cosmic Crisp.”
She also says Stemilt had “one of the best Pink Lady apple crops this year with phenomenal colors,” and Granny Smith and Fuji also have “good promotion potential.”
According to Angie Sommers, director of marketing, Belle Harvest, Belding, MI, “Once the holiday baking season wraps up, it’s natural to shift into the ‘healthy eating’ mentality that everyone takes on after the New Year. This is a perfect time to feature new flavors and recipes. Look for opportunities to promote the premium variety segment, as supplies of some regional apples decline. Re-allocate this shelf space to build consumer trial and awareness.”
Kaari Stannard, president and chief executive of Yes! Apples, Glenmont, NY, notes that apples have a basic appeal that merchandising and promotion should address both to consumers turning to healthier eating and those who embrace traditional winter cooking.
“Apples are the perfect snack year-round,” she says. “They’re also great in recipes beyond the holidays.”
Trish Taylor, marketing manager, Riveridge Produce Marketing, Sparta, MI, says the company is tapping into the role fresh apples play in a healthy diet by sponsoring a company contest called ‘Apple a Day Challenge’. “Players will have the opportunity to earn points throughout the month of January by participating and winners are chosen at the end of the month,” she explains. “It’s fun, and it promotes healthy habits and gets people engaged in our local apple campaign.”
SPOTLIGHT KEY ATTRIBUTES
Chuck Sinks, president, sales and marketing at Sage Fruit Co., Yakima, WA, says there are several ways to increase retail apple sales and, when used in tandem, they can produce even greater results.
“Build eye-catching displays for those that are shopping in-store — grab the consumers’ attention as they walk into the store or produce department,” Sinks says, adding retailers should also highlight the numerous different varieties available. “Each apple variety has a unique flavor profile, which means there’s something for everyone. Provide information about the product, flavor, availability, best uses or what it compares to.”
Sinks also encourages making retail pricing attractive, and giving shoppers a reason to try a new apple. “With more and more consumers ordering their groceries, retailers should consider digital promotion, whether it be through social channels or digital ads. When promoting a product that consumers do not necessarily see with their own eyes at the store level though, they will need to be provided with information regarding flavor and best uses.”
Education is critical to ensuring consumers understand and try new varieties, says Sommers.
“Today’s consumers absolutely need education on the different apple varieties available to them,” she says. “For so long, shoppers’ only distinction between varieties was focused on color: green, red, and yellow. We can use this opportunity to focus on flavor. The premium and emerging varieties provide a chance to get in front of the consumer with information to help guide trial and awareness. In a perfect world, they will like all the new varieties hitting the store shelf, but only two to three will typically stick. It’s a home run if you can get them to remember the variety name and eating experience. With all of that combined, you have a likelihood for re-purchase, so it’s important that retailer’s stock new varieties for more than a month at a time. Shoppers need a chance to trial and come back for more.”
Sommers adds that retailers can generate sales by presenting “varieties in a way that enhance the experience for the consumer. We can do this by creating thoughtful displays that highlight the flavor scale or incorporate usage charts alongside the variety name, so shoppers have a better idea of ways to incorporate their apple into recipes. Find ways to cross-merchandise other products to spark curiosity and trial. Having adequate signage and digital representation is key to promoting the category well.”
“Bring apples back to the forefront, even if a small display with a focus on healthy habits,” says Taylor. “Winter apples are great when eaten out of hand and can satisfy the sweet craving we often have after the holidays.”
It’s a good idea to maintain the space and prominence of apples from fall to winter, Shales says, as well as promotional pace, with packaged apples as “in-and-outs or everyday items” positioned to drive impulse sales and as a vehicle for online purchases for delivery.
Keep in mind that many consumers want fun, but healthy, dishes for everyday and special occasions.
“It is all about fresh,” says Cynthia Haskins, president and chief executive, New York Apple Association (NYAA). “Chopping, dicing and slicing and adding to a fresh salad is a way to kick off the New Year.”
And don’t forget game day options, Haskins adds. NYAA promotional plans include showcasing different ways to create fruit boards that can combine apples with other fruit, cheeses and football favorites such as hot wings, cold cuts and other finger food.
NYAA is also launching a promotional advertising campaign that focuses on nutrition and well-being. Throughout January, banner ads will feature registered dietitian Kelly Springer as she showcases healthy ways to enjoy New York apples. For example, the ads will encourage consumers to eat healthier by starting out the day with a warm bowl of oatmeal and sliced apple or tossing an apple in a blender to make fresh juice. The campaign will incorporate digital ads in marketplaces where New York apples are displayed and feature partnerships with retailers to geotarget ads.
Beyond that, the NYAA website posts more than 200 recipes and will add 50 more over the next several weeks.
As winter rolls in, Sommers says, “Start with the basics. Maintaining sales on Honeycrisp and legacy varieties such as Gala, Fuji, and Red Delicious is very important. Honeycrisp alone drives 28% of Q1 dollars, based off Nielsen data. Legacy varieties add an additional 54% of dollars. Consumer purchases are shifting to higher cost varieties in Q1, so use this opportunity to promote Honeycrisp, legacy and premium varieties.”
COLOR IN MIDWINTER
Solid apple merchandising can match consumer expectations in the chilly months, says Valerie Ramsburg, sales and marketing, Rice Fruit Co., Gardners, PA. “Shoppers think of apples and citrus in the winter. Keeping a colorful array of apples in both loose and bagged or pouched items will continue to attract attention.”
Although some retailers have moved away from it, striping is still favored by many retailers as a way to command consumer attention. Zeke Kreitner, chief produce officer of Seasons, Flushing, NY, carefully arranges red, green and multicolor apples for maximum effect. Similarly, Stile’s, New York, NY, a traditional fruit and vegetable store in Manhattan, uses striping across the full range of fruits, running through the apple presentation to mango, pomegranate and beyond. Co-owner Donna Stile says that the store’s “farmers market” merchandising is a reflection of the business’ 50-year history as well as the range of variety offered and the value pricing the operation offers.
Ramsburg regards striping as a first-rate way to approach merchandising.
“Alternating red, yellow or green, and bicolor varieties on the shelf helps to draw the customer’s eye and differentiate between their favorite varieties,” she says.
Consumers are primed to purchase apples all winter long, and they will if reminded to do so.
“I say to my retailers all the time: ‘Apples make the list’,” says Oppy’s Desnoyers. “Regularly being on the weekly family shopping list, apples aren’t typically an impulse purchase. So it’s important to have a visible apple set throughout the winter.”
Display bins from vendors that highlight apple varieties and taste profiles are a great way to promote, as they attract attention, she adds, and keeping apples on ad and consistently available will ensure consumers know retailers have their favorites available through the winter.
KNOW YOUR SHOPPER
Although main variety sales are consistent across the United States, tastes do differ to a degree, depending on market, and can be reflected in produce department apple presentations.
“Within certain regional areas, there are obvious flavor and texture preferences that we can observe within our customer base,” Ramsburg says. “Heartier, more traditional flavors like the McIntosh and Empire are still very favorable toward the north, while sweeter flavor profiles are more popular the farther south you travel.”
The apple is almost the perfect commodity: Lots of variety, low shrink, portable and super healthy. What’s not to love?
She says Rice Fruit Company tailors programs to offer “the right apples, at the right time to the right place.”
“This also ties into how we plan our local programs and where we offer some of our branded varieties. Every geographical area has particular taste preferences, and those details are extremely important when building local and regional programs. Where there is change, we must be able to adapt and react, which is why we concentrate heavily on having a wide variety of apple offerings.”
Honeybear Marketing’s Roper, however, says regional variations are relatively minor through the biggest selling varieties, and suggests retailers pay more attention to demographics than geography.
“Sales data shows it is pretty consistent — the No. 1, 2 and 3 apples by sales in all markets,” Roper says. “A more prominent distinction is sales by customer demographic, with younger population more willing to try new varieties versus the learned behavior of older buyers who generally stick to what they know when it comes to their varietal choices. This has been a pretty consistent pattern over many years.”
According to Statista, for 2020, Honeycrisp sales represented about 27% of the U.S. total sales, followed by Gala at 20% and Fuji at 11%.
PROMOTE WHAT’S NEW
Established varieties are important, says Diane Smith, executive director, Michigan Apple Committee, with the top five established varieties making up almost 80% of all apple sales. But, she adds, retailers should consider aggressively merchandising new varieties to build momentum for the specific apples and to make the display a bit more exciting.
“New varieties need their own space to be effective. Adding them to the display with no fanfare will likely add shrink. Separate new varieties until you can get them established with your clientele,” Smith says.
She recommends using social media, digital media and point-of-purchase signage to educate the consumer on the taste profile and give them a reason to try the new variety. “Samples still work, with the pandemic we just need to be more creative. Try a digital demo or have a basket for kids to try a whole apple for free.”
Retailers should go into detail about growing areas, advantages, flavor profile and texture when merchandising new or not-yet established varieties.
“Most consumers want an idea of the flavor profile of a new variety they are offered, and many also would like to know where the apples were grown,” Ramsburg says.
Although worthwhile in generating consumer interest, the introduction of new varieties is perhaps the hardest thing stores attempt in the produce department.
“Getting consumers to change their behavior to try new items is a significant task,” Roper says. “To do this, it is really important to utilize as much information as you have available to share with your customers. From how the product is grown, where it is grown, the flavor expectation, story on how it was developed, all of these attributes build the persona of the product and this information coupled with the retailers willingness to promote the items on a routine basis lead to new product adoption.”
Oppy director of apples and pears, Roger Aguirre, says Oppy has partnerships with in-store nutritionists and dietitians to connect to the consumer, and to start the New Year, they will support a “healthy eating push for both Envy and JAZZ, with healthful recipes and general nutritional content for the apples: staying satiated between meals, snacking and their health benefits.”
Both apples will also align with March Madness, he adds, and a big promotion for Envy is planned during Valentine’s Day. They will have totes, POS and digital social content to complement the promotions. And he teased retailers to stay tuned for a “blockbuster movie partnership and kid-friendly cartoon character partnership.”
Cabot Cheese and Envy apples also are trialing a co-branded merchandising and promotional partnership during February and March in the Northeast, Aguirre says, “with the intent to drive consumption and cross-category sales.”
Oppy is positioning its JAZZ apples a bit differently, strengthening it as the “go-to apple for snacking, cooking and big occasion needs, compiling chef Joel Gamoran’s popular JAZZ recipes to share this message.”
Of course, reminding consumers of the relationship between apples and doctors can be one way of emphasizing health.
“Apples can be seen as medicine and not just keeping your doctor at bay,” Sommers says. “Today, more than ever, consumers are aware of what they put into their bodies. They may not read every label or even be able to pronounce most ingredients on packaging, especially highly processed snacks. However, people are hyper-focused on preventing illness and disease, so they naturally turn to the easiest means of doing so. The start of the New Year is a great time to tout the benefits of apples on your health.”
For Yes! Apples, imports are a means of providing greater variety choice through the year and generating excitement in the apple presentation. John Cushing, Yes! Apples senior vice president, says they import Honeycrisp and SweeTango apples from New Zealand.
“By developing an import program on the popular Honeycrisp, it allows us to segue from our domestic crop into imports and remain a viable year-round supplier for this important variety,” Cushing says. “One part of our import program involves organic Honeycrisp, also from New Zealand, which helps us meet the growing demand for organic apples.”
“All the technology available to growers does not always protect the crop from weather or pests,” Ramsburg says. “Imports make it possible to have certain varieties available year-round, which allows consumers to maintain the habit of including apples in their regular shopping plan.”
Roper agrees import apple and pear supplies play a key role with retailers. “Retailers who want a year-round ‘fresh crop’ program typically have some sort of dual hemisphere import program to bring the best eating varieties to their retail deck. Year in and year out, our domestic production will have gaps in our supply of key mainline varieties and this is where a strong import supply partner provides the necessary supply assurance to retailers.”
Apples that have an international pedigree do make for a marketable change within a category that’s a staple.