Apple Opportunities Warm in Winter

Photo courtesy of Superfresh Growers

Originally printed in the January 2021 issue of Produce Business.

With a range of factors influencing the marketplace, the time may be ripe for new approaches to apple merchandising.

As the New Year rolls in, winter apples can create opportunity for produce retailers as resolute consumers think more about what they eat and see fewer alternatives available.

Important consideration must be given to scale however. Displays should be proportionate to space, eye-catching and not too overwhelming. So, it is critical that retailers carefully weigh their customer preferences to provide a balance of old favorites, popular newcomers and emerging varieties, while looking at where organics and imports may fit in. Cross merchandising can be a benefit, but, again, it’s a matter of knowing the customer and if and when a store’s shoppers might be interested in baking or other cooking choices. At the same time, retailers can take advantage of the various electronic means of promoting apples given how the COVID-19 pandemic has changed shopping patterns.

Although not exactly seasonal in nature, time of year does influence winter apple opportunities. Conspicuous merchandising is critical to commanding the attention of consumers who have good intentions as regards eating after the holidays but can be distracted by the store-wide range of products being promoted as healthy eating choices post-holiday. Of course, apples are an obvious choice for their wellness characteristics, and they are key to produce displays after summer fruit season wanes. The more retailers can catch consumer eyes using color and signage, keep up a promotional schedule that engages consumers regularly and ensure displays are policed so shoppers get a good impression of the options offered, the more likely they are to maximize sales potential.

Randy Bohaty, director of produce for B&R Stores of Lincoln, NE, says the shift from summer fruit to fall apple time provides an opportunity to refresh the produce department even if the fruit isn’t exactly seasonal.
“It’s one of our most consistent categories,” he says.

As fall moves into winter, apples are a key feature of Bohaty’s produce merchandising but aren’t necessarily on everyone’s shopping list. So it’s important to shift the merchandising focus through a combination of display and advertising to emphasize what old and new favorites might be available during the winter and, in that way, generate impulse sales.

“The biggest thing is to advertise one or two apples in the ad each week and make sure you have good value when that comes in, and have a feature apple or two out so you have visibility. We’ll promote a few more varieties outside of the main varieties, such as an Opal or Cosmic Crisp,” Bohaty says.

Marc Goldman, produce director for Morton Williams Supermarket, Bronx, NY, says the shift to fall and then winter apples is conspicuous in the produce departments he supervises because of limited space. Depending on the season, some things have to yield space to others even if they themselves are popular all year long.

“In the summertime, you have all the summer fruit available,” he says. “It does slow up the demand for the apples because there’s more choice. But I don’t see a big difference. People who like apples like apples.”

Colors On Display

What’s crucial in winter is making consumers aware of apples when they come into the store.

Goldman says that some retailers like to build massive displays of various red apple varieties all together, but he prefers an approach that mingles colors. So, he will intersperse the reds with green Granny Smiths and even navel oranges to attract consumers.

“I think the most beautiful thing about produce is the colors,” he says. “They draw people to the display. To me, it’s very important to use colors to pop.”
Because they already have broad consumer acceptance, apples provide opportunity across the US and Canada in one way or another.

“Apples are ubiquitous across regions and demographics; however, the Midwest and East regions of the US are the dominant regions when it comes to apple consumption,” says Brianna Shales, newly minted marketing director of Stemilt Growers, Wenatchee, WA. “As their local/regional supplies wrap up, apples grown in Washington, and from brands such as Stemilt, become much more common in those regions and the rest of the country.”

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Chuck Sinks, president, sales and marketing at Sage Fruit Co., Yakima, WA, sees the winter apple opportunity in even broader terms. “The key apple consumer is anyone who visits the grocery store, whether it be in-store or through online shopping,” he says. “Our goal is to reach as many households as possible because apples are nutritious, healthy and affordable.”

Merchandising is critical, but retailers may do well to consider support for the in-store display in the several promotional dimensions readily available today. During the first week of January, for example, Aldi in the New York metropolitan area promoted Gala Apples on the first page of its circular and included an Apples from New York logo to give the marketing a little local color.

Cynthia Haskins, president and chief executive of the New York Apple Association, Victor, NY, points out that NYAA has been establishing online partnerships with retailers to promote New York apple varieties, including recipes for websites and for retailer social media platforms in addition to weekly online circular support. The association emphasized that web-based promotion is becoming more important, pointing out that, in one example, NYAA has seen digital couponing become more prevalent. As consumers have been shopping online more in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, digital marketing has become a more important consideration, especially since retailers across the spectrum, where practical, are expanding their delivery and curbside pickup services.

Toward winter’s end, NYAA plans a social media sweepstakes celebrating March National Nutritional Month, with Haskins remarking that such promotions have enjoyed “great success” in the past.

COVID Concerns

It is important to note that, for at least the next few months, the pandemic will be a merchandising factor retailers have to address.

“Anytime you can engage with the customer, you are going to have a positive impact,” says Brenda Briggs, vice president of sales and marketing, Rice Fruit Co., Gardners, PA. “COVID makes sampling and cooking demonstrations difficult at this point in time, but get creative! Do giveaways, or partner with your apple supplier for promotions, or have a healthy eating contest. Engage! Many families are looking for something to do, so let’s give them healthy eating challenges.”

She notes that current conditions already have pushed consumers into rethinking how they buy apples.

“Bags and packaged items are a hit, as they translate across all COVID-shopping needs,” Briggs said. “Overall sales, particularly over the past two months, have been strong across packs, driven by the holidays, a reduced national crop and high transportation rates from the West.”

With all the recent disruption of retailing, Stemilt’s Shales says apple movement was good through the autumn and into December, especially in the bagged option.

Diane Smith, executive director of the Michigan Apple Committee, Lansing, MI, says the pandemic “has changed merchandising trends to allow consumers to grab and go and not spend a lot of time in each department. Stand-alone bin displays and larger displays of poly, tote or mesh bags have been successful ways to market apples. This trend will likely continue in the winter months and well into 2021.”

Better Storage Varieties

Although COVID-19 is a reality that retailers and their suppliers must confront, larger developments are afoot that are longer term opportunities as regards winter apples.

Indeed, the term “winter apple” is less prevalent now than was once the case, says Trish Taylor, marketing director for Riveridge Produce Marketing, Sparta, MI. In part, this is because of better apple storage technology and handling.

“We can store apples in harvest condition for a full year thanks to controlled atmosphere rooms,” she says. “During harvest, we have a quality control crew that evaluates every lot before they go into storage to ensure they can go the long haul. We’re able to grade them on storability attributes and prioritize the varieties and lots into a strategic pack out order.”

Of course, growers today are sophisticated when it comes to dealing with storage apples.

“There are very few apples that don’t store well or have an extended season,” Stemilt’s Shales says. “For those that do have a quick season or start later in the year, it is usually intentional so that it hits a certain market window. The main consideration for retailers when it comes to winter apples is which varieties are you going to carry? This is especially important when it comes to club or exclusive varieties. You want that mix established and make sure there is merchandising focused on new items so that consumers can learn about them and be enticed to try and purchase.”
Sinks says that storage viability is less of an issue than varietal availability.

“Varieties such as Cameo, Braeburn and Jonagold will be available until the spring, but there will typically be a gap through the summer months,” he says. “Honeycrisp, Gala, Red Delicious, Granny Smith, Pink Lady, on the other hand, produce enough volume to be stored year-’round.”

However, an exception to the rule always arises. “The only variety we sell that might be considered a ‘winter’ apple would be the Cosmic Crisp,” Sinks says. “However, that is due to its release date – this year being 11/23 – and the overall volume harvested. Because it’s a new variety in high demand that hasn’t reached peak harvest volume, it tends to sell out prior to spring.

But, as volume does increase, we know the Cosmic Crisp has excellent storing capabilities and will eventually be available year-round.”

For her part, Michigan Apple’s Smith says, “CA apples’ shelf life is as good or better in some cases than fresh harvest apples. Many varieties have a better taste profile after CA storage.

B&R’s Bohaty maintains, “Storage apples are pretty consistent in terms of quality and not detrimental out of season.”

Most consumers are interested in the results of controlled atmosphere conditioning rather than the process, Renae Moran, a University of Maine tree fruit specialist, contends. “The general public has no idea what controlled atmosphere storage is, or how apples are handled,” she says. “In my opinion, consumption is driven by apple quality or its flavor and texture.

Mind Your 4 P’s

Winter apple merchandising requires imagination to continually refresh interest in the product category, Stemilt’s Shales says.

“Regular promotions and promoting multiple varieties at a time are key to merchandising apples during the winter season,” she says. “It’s great to tie these fruits into other items that make sense. In fact, we see lots of creativity from retailers promoting our tropical Pinata apple alongside pineapples. There are also holidays or events that apples fit well into: Pink Lady apples for Valentine’s Day, apples for Super Bowl snacks, and, of course, Granny Smith apples for St. Patrick’s Day. Retailers who focus on the 4Ps – the right product, price, placement and promotion – are the ones who see the most success when it comes to apple category growth.”

Promotions can tap any number of meal occasions.

“Breakfast inspiration is an area for apple growth,” says Catherine Gipe-Stewart, communications manager, Superfresh Growers, Yakima, WA. “Merchandising with oatmeal, yogurt and pancake items and recipes are all helpful. Apples also remain a key afternoon/after-school snack item. Cross merchandising with classic pairing such as nut-butters are a reliable go-to.”

Consumers do recognize the fall is apple harvest time, Sinks says, with the result that they are primed to purchase apples into the winter, which makes compelling merchandising even more important.

“We typically finish picking our last variety in early November, so they’re all readily available for consumers,” he says. “The holidays bring high demand for baking apples, including the Granny Smith and Golden Delicious varieties. The first of the year, and New Year’s Resolutions, bring high demand for varieties that are excellent for eating out of hand including Gala, Fuji, Pink Lady. After the first of the year, we see a large emphasis on people trying to eat healthier, so pairing apples up with other healthy items, whether it be in the produce department or other areas of the store, is also a way to boost exposure.”

Import & Organic Possibilities

The opportunity for winter imports is limited by price and timing, but it does exist. So, the retailer needs to know the consumer, test things and select the best moments for trial, which can include when domestic varieties are hard to get. The competition for imports from domestic apples is steep given availability and the launch of new varieties in North America.

“We have seen a decreased need to import apples due to the increased volume in which we are now producing and the benefits of CA storage,” Sinks says. “There are still some varieties the United States does not currently produce enough of that may need to be supplemented with offshore volume.”

University of Maine’s Moran adds that imports can be an element in, but not necessarily central to, selling winter apples.

“Imported apples from the southern hemisphere will not show up until spring,” Moran notes. “The opportunity in winter is limited by the high cost of importation and the strong competition within the US.”

Morton Williams’ Goldman says consumers are unlikely to swap out an imported apple for a domestic one of the same variety given the higher price. However, when good quality apples are unavailable or are selling out, imports can be a help. “Sometime you get the apples from New Zealand and the quality is better,” he says. “We try to stay with value for the customer, but if the imported apples are better quality, we’ll go with those.”

As for organics, the core consumer is specific to the category, but Sinks asserts that retailers should engage the organic customer, or potential organic customer, through the winter because it is a time when many consumers think hard about what they eat and how it affects their sense of wellbeing.

“Winter is a perfect time to push organic apples,” he says. “They are at their peak availability during the winter months. While all produce is good produce, organics tend to be perceived as a healthier option and work well for New Year’s displays.”

The COVID-19 pandemic also has pushed consumers to contemplate what is healthy for them. “Organic apples are hitting record volume share for the overall apple category,” Gipe-Stewart says,” and 2020 was the year for steady organic apple growth. We expect this trend to continue through 2021.”