New varieties, new flavors can add crunch to your apple category sales, but it won’t happen without solid merchandising.
Originally printed in the October 2021 issue of Produce Business.
Apples are always prominent, always available and always need promotion and merchandising to maximize their sales potential.
Although some basic principles remain, apple merchandising and promotion is changing, with broader opportunities to sell the category. Today’s retailers demonstrate varied merchandising approaches to apples within an overall produce department and store strategy.
How retailers merchandise apples today expresses larger, clearly defined produce department strategies. For example, MOM’s Organic, based in Rockville, MD, conspicuously avoids big, bulky produce and strict color striping in the kind of displays many supermarket operators employ. Instead, CEO Scott Nash lets the quality of the product speak for itself by focusing on smaller displays that shoppers effectively turn over as they purchase. A constant replenishment activity is the labor factor that underlies the approach.
For his part, Zeke Kreitner, chief produce officer of Seasons, Flushing, NY, employs widely seen color contrast in his merchandising — only he ups the ante in smaller grocery environs where the produce department may be only 900 square feet. Kreitner creates distinct color breaks that are deliberately arranged to display the multicolor apples common today, then lights the presentation for effect.
“We’re about the quality,” he says, and adds, “I love the colors.”
An award-winning merchandiser, Danny Kim, produce manager of Pick-Rite Thriftway, Montesano, WA, looks for additional opportunities beyond color. To make apples more attractive, he says, he approached them “more like a treat” and has even mocked up a tree, in one instance, as a merchandising centerpiece, to draw shoppers’ attention. Then he uses “all kinds of different baskets with different apples.”
“I call up the grocery department, get some peelers, apple juice that doesn’t have to be refrigerated, and I line them up with particular kinds of apples to cross-merchandise,” Kim adds.
The mix of established and new varieties is an ongoing engine for apple merchandising and the evolution of promotion.
From Stemilt Growers’ point of view, apple popularity hasn’t changed much recently, although the marketplace isn’t stagnant.
“The top five varieties have remained unchanged for a few years now: Gala, Honeycrisp, Fuji, Granny Smith, Red Delicious,” says Brianna Shales, marketing director for Stemilt, Wenatchee, WA. “However, Honeycrisp continues to show its strength in dollars. It is 30% of the category’s dollar contribution despite being about 20% of the volume.”
Across the country, in Gardners, PA, the trends are a bit different at Rice Fruit.
“Since Rice Fruit Co. is located right in the middle of Pennsylvania’s apple country, we have a large following for our local/regional apples,” says Brenda Briggs, vice president of sales and marketing. “Consumers want to know that their food is grown close to home and take great pride in supporting local farm families and businesses.”
Diane Smith, executive director with the Michigan Apple Committee, Lansing, MI, says, “Gala are always a crowd favorite in the standard varieties. In the managed variety category, Sweet Tango is gaining popularity. Red Delicious seems to be cooling off and has for the last few years.”
Newer and emerging managed varieties such as Rave, SweeTango, EverCrisp, KIKU and Kanzi are hot, says Brian Coates, vice president of sales and business development, Applewood Fresh, Sparta, MI, while “older legacy varieties,” such as Paula Reds, Jonathan, Jonagold, Braeburn or Red Delicious are waning.
“Newer apples are trending, including Rave and SweeTango leading the way as the early fall apples, then Cripps Pink, KIKU and Kanzi in November and December, then EverCrisp after the first of the year,” Coates says. “Retailers are starting to move customers over to the higher retail emerging/branded varieties from some of the legacy varieties — higher dollar ring at the front end to help drive sales.”
Still, he says, from the Applewood Fresh view, Gala, Honeycrisp, SweeTango, Fuji, Red Delicious and McIntosh remain at the top of the heap.
The seasonality within apple varieties requires planning and helps extend consumer attention. “There are many proprietary varieties that make an impact during certain parts of the year,” Shales explains.
“Of course, Cosmic Crisp from Washington State growers is one that is certainly heating up the category. It’s on a steep growth path for volume and has fantastic flavor and quality attributes to help drive consumer demand when it becomes available again in November,” adds Shales.
Briggs of Rice Fruit says the industry continues to offer tried and true varieties while also innovating to bring new flavor to consumers. “Along with new varieties planted, we continue to market the KIKU, and most recently, Ambrosia and the SnapDragon apple to widen our offerings and bring new flavor and texture experiences to customers. With these varieties comes specialized in-store marketing that grabs shoppers’ eyes and encourages exploratory purchasing.”
At Yes! Apples, based in Glenmont, NY, Honeycrisp, Gala and Fuji continue to dominate sales, but it’s also seen “good, incremental growth” for club varieties like Snapdragon, SweeTango, Evercrisp, RubyFrost and Koru, says Kaari Stannard, president and chief executive. “Pink Lady and Ambrosia are also varieties that will grow in significant volume for us over the next few years.”
Vince Lopes, senior vice president of sales and marketing, T&G North America, Torrance, CA, says traditional apple varieties are no longer secure at the top of the apple pecking order, even for cooking.
“Newer varieties such as Jazz and Envy are a much better choice for flavor, but are also quite versatile and now much preferred for all cooking applications,” he says, adding that Envy is the top selling premium apple brand, driving 17.8% dollar sales growth as well as 17.7% volume growth, citing Nielsen figures for the 52 weeks ending Aug. 14.
“Envy is considered to be a prized premium apple by influential media, chefs and shoppers for its sophisticated sweetness and extraordinary crunch, and by our retail partners for driving strong, everyday, premium volume growth that is ultimately bringing strong value back to the category,” Lopes says.
BUILD IT AND THEY WILL BUY
With sales tilting against older apple varieties, Chuck Sinks, president, sales and marketing, of Sage Fruit, Yakima, WA, says what’s new needs to get more profile.
“At the retail level, there are several ways to best introduce a new apple variety and, used in tandem, they can produce even greater results,” he says.
Sinks recommends retailers build eye-catching displays of new varieties to grab the consumers’ attention as they walk into the store or produce department. In addition, information about the product — flavor, availability and best uses, as well as comparisons to traditional comparable varieties — can be helpful. He also urges retailers to make retail pricing attractive and to generate in-store or digital promotions. The right price offer gives consumers a specific reason to try the new apple, Sinks says.
Unfamiliar varieties need a conspicuous profile in the apple presentation to maximize their potential, Shales agrees.
“High graphic packaging and displays can help tell part of the story, but signage is equally important, as is giving the variety prominent space and promotion. There is a lot of consumer marketing done around new varieties to help pull consumers into stores to purchase the new apple. We certainly saw the impact that consumer marketing had when Cosmic Crisp had its first year on the market, as consumers came in droves to try this new apple.”
“Some of the most important elements of displays are bright, engaging packaging, paired with appropriate signage,” adds Rice Fruit’s Valerie Ramsburg, sales and marketing. “So it’s not so much about the size of the display, but the content and message. Consumers are drawn to what they know and what tastes good. If you have an eye-catching display with an apple the consumer recently had a good eating experience with, the consumer is much more likely to purchase that particular variety.”
New varieties, says Antonia Mascari, vice president of marketing at Applewood Fresh, should be “merchandised where they stand out in front of the store or produce department.”
Big upfront apple displays, with grower info and origin, that are shoppable on all sides can generate interest. Then, new varieties need end cap displays in and around the produce department as well as bin presentations where possible. They also can benefit from merchandising arranged from sweet to tart, and signage detailing the flavor profile.
“This in-store signage will help educate consumers and staff so they’ll be more willing to try new apples,” Mascari says.
Even though certain apples deserve extra attention in periods when they’re becoming more popular, focusing too closely on a single item can be counterproductive.
“Marketing single varieties in print ads that may cannibalize the apple category for an ad period has given way to advertising multiple varieties and merchandising them together on lead display spaces,” says Smith, of the Michigan Apple Committee. “Keeping the number of different retail prices on apples to a minimum helps customers to feel they can mix and match varieties and also makes it easier for shoppers to check out in self-checkout lanes.”
New varieties such as Envy garner additional consumer loyalty when they have prominent positioning such as in stand-alone bins, end cap displays and secondary locations such as deli, bakery as well as in front of cash registers, T&G’s Lopes says.
“The category is also practically begging for new considerations of consumer packaging development, as the trend of bulk and bags is invigorating the category,” he says.
Another idea retail could consider is to blend apple and pear sets, Lopes adds. “With the various colors of red, green, yellow and brown rusted pears, those could serve as color breaks for apples, bringing lift to both categories.”
Although having color breaks are important, Sinks of Sage Fruit suggests taking merchandising a step further and, if possible, refrigerate the apple display. “Refrigeration helps prevent moisture loss, which means apples will stay crispier and juicier. In turn, this ensures a better eating experience for consumers and leads to repeat purchases.”
Mascari says fall and winter are prime time for cross-merchandising.
“Cross-merchandise with apple cider, candy apples, caramel apple kits, caramel dips, pumpkins, etc. October is National Apple Month, so it’s the perfect time to create fall harvest displays with a harvest theme or pumpkin patch promotion. Winter is the perfect time to promote apples as the star of the produce department, just in time for holiday gift baskets, recipes and decor that include apples. Merchandise with pie shells, pie toppings, apple peelers/corers and other baking supplies. Include recipe handouts in-store,” she says.
Smith says autumn promotion should just be the start. “Cross-merchandising can be used in the produce department year-round,” she emphasizes.
“Seasonal tie-ins for fall and baking season are the norm, but trying out-of-the-box displays with beer and wine, cheese and other perishable departments are proven sales and margin builders.”
Sage Fruit’s Sinks adds online shopping can make cross-merchandising more valuable, as, after all, it can be a way to encourage more apple uses and generate ancillary sales.
“In the past year and a half, cross-merchandising has taken on a new life,” he says. “With so many digital shoppers, given the pandemic, we now see suggested items based on our current or past purchases.”
Although presentation is fairly consistent across the United States, region does play a role in merchandising and promotion.
“It’s important to understand the differences in bulk versus packaged, or organic versus conventional by region to create the best assortment and strategy for apples,” Stemilt Growers’ Shales notes. “We see bags do exceptionally well in the Midwest and East regions, while bulk is the primary apple purchase vehicle in the West, and organics are more popular here, too. Retailers wanting to improve in one area that their region isn’t strong in could look to other regions and work to conduct a successful trial to see if you can replicate results.”
Yes! Apples’ Stannard says an emphasis on local growers is a part and parcel of good apple merchandising. These days, consumers want to know who is growing their food, which bolsters interest in local growers.
“Our goal is to give consumers a view into our incredible community of growers,” Stannard says. “We do this by creating customer awareness of our brand through our website and other marketing channels, which highlight our growers through their stories, and through our shared passion for apples.”
Sage Fruit’s Sinks says if consumers are from an area that has locally grown produce, “they want to know they are purchasing products that are grown in their region. They’re supporting their local economy. It then trickles out to areas close by that can also consider those same products ‘local,’” he adds.
Applewood Fresh’s Mascari says retailers can get some traction by taking a personal approach to locally grown product.
“In some retailers, local apples are merchandised with grower bios and/or images,” she says. “Leverage local to drive the fresh message. Use grower bios for info cards and in-store displays.”
Rice Fruit has developed a particular approach to considerations such as local, regional and branded.
“Within certain regional areas, there are obvious flavor and texture preferences that we can observe within our customer base,” says Rice Fruit’s Valerie Ramsburg.” 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. So, we tailor our programs to make sure we’re offering 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.”
Cynthia Haskins, New York Apple Association president and chief executive, says the organization is preparing radio and television advertising for the fall as part of a comprehensive advertising program.
“The New York Apple Association has an aggressive marketing and advertising plan for the state’s apple harvest season,” she says. “The marketing plan includes building awareness for all apple varieties through television spots, out-of-home advertising and digital marketing, and through high-graphic packaging and in-storage product displays, in addition to making digital assets available to retail partners.”
The association also has signage detailing the characteristics of various varieties and provides a portfolio of multimedia marketing assets, including photo galleries, apple variety information and recipe posts.
Organic Apples Strengthen Overall Category Sales
At a time when wellness is a major consumer issue, organics are a segment of the apple assortment likely to gain additional attention — and sales.
“Organics are about 12% of apple category volume and 16% of sales if you look at the national composite for one year,” says Briannna Shales, marketing director for Stemilt Growers, Wenatchee, WA. “Of course, there are peak times for organics and also high-performing organic retailers where these averages would be far exceeded.”
She adds, however, organic apple merchandising has to fit with the retailers’ overall strategy. “Packaging can help ensure organic apples are rung up properly and also can help increase the average purchase size. When it comes to organics, though, frequent promotion is a great way to drive category growth.”
For Yes! Apples, based in Glenmont, NY, 2021 is the first year it is importing organic Honeycrisp from New Zealand.
“Developing an import program based on the popular Honeycrisp allows us to segue from our domestic crop into imports and remain a viable year-round supplier for this important variety,” says Kaari Stannard, Yes! Apples president and chief executive. “The organic Honeycrisp imports strengthen our overall program and enable us to fulfill our customers’ demand for organic apples.”
Chuck Sinks, president, sales and marketing, of Sage Fruit, Yakima, WA, says everyone should keep organics in focus as an ongoing opportunity.
“While we, as an industry, have made significant efforts to meet the needs of consumers, demand for organic produce is still on the rise,” he says. “Right now, organic apples make up roughly 20% of our overall volume. When being merchandised, organic produce should be distinctly called out. The organic consumer is very loyal to their product and will seek it out in the produce department.”
Pandemic Packaging: Blip or Here to Stay?
The issue of packaging versus bulk continues to play out as the COVID-19 crisis persists, but many industry observers feel the degree to which consumers demand packaged alternatives to bulk products is likely to shift over time. However, the growth of curbside pickup and grocery delivery is likely to bolster demand for bagged and boxed apples, at least to a degree.
“Since late 2019, we have noticed an increase in pre-packaged sales,” says Brenda Briggs, vice president of sales and marketing for Rice Fruit Co., Gardners, PA. “Online grocery delivery and pickup have skyrocketed in popularity, driven by people spending additional time eating at home. The idea of ‘grab and go’ still holds very true — even if it’s not the consumer directly doing the shopping.”
“Purchasing packaged apples in poly or pouch bags has also been a catalyst in gaining additional sales dollars and volume as these packs are easier to purchase on Internet shopping platforms,” says Diane Smith, executive director of the Michigan Apple Committee.
Still, experiences have been mixed. Vince Lopes, senior vice president of sales and marketing, T&G North America, Torrance, CA, says that bagged and packaged apple sales have gained, but not to the extent of changing produce department apple presentations.
“It seems there is a light-to-moderate pickup in bagged apples over the past year, though overall, the merchandising for apples remains primarily unchanged,” he says.