A few focal areas in stone fruit convert summertime excitement into year-long profits.
With the approaching summertime, the produce department eagerly anticipates the arrival of the stone fruit season. “When you start thinking about season specialties, you have citrus in the winter, apples in fall, and peaches and other stone fruit in summertime,” states Duke Lane, president of the Georgia Peach Council located in Fort Valley, GA. “The summertime leader is the stone fruit.”
Stone fruit plays an extremely important role in the produce department at George’s Market at Dreshertown, a single, upscale independent grocer located in Dresher, PA. Nancy Grace, produce manager, says, “There are several counters that are designated just for stone fruit, and peaches are given the prime spotlight.”
A steady flow of commitment from shoppers keeps this category popular. “It is one of the few categories in the produce department that gets a certain excitement and anticipation when the season begins each year,” explains Jeff Simonian, sales manager with Simonian Fruit Company, located in Fowler, CA. “I don’t think there is a variance with this year to year.” Retailers, such as K-VA-T Food Stores, with 133 stores and headquartered in Abingdon, VA, consider stone fruit sales a central factor to overall success.
“The stone fruit category can play a crucial role in having a successful or unsuccessful year in both sales and units,” says Keith Cox, produce category manager for K-VA-T. “Of course Mother Nature plays a huge role in this also; for example, missing a cherry ad due to weather-related issues can cost several dollars in sales that can be hard to make up.” The window of opportunity for summer fruit is relatively small, so retailers note the importance of effective promotion. “It is important to promote stone fruit often at the beginning of the season and throughout the end of season,” says Cox. The Georgia Peach Council recommends a “first of season” program. “People are excited when Georgia peaches are here,” says Lane. “Our season carries us through August.”
New Jersey peach season starts early July with peak product mid-July through end of August as reported by Sunny Valley International in Glassboro, NJ. “We also represent a peach grower out of South Carolina, and these are available from mid-May through early August,” reports Bob Von Rohr, director of customer relations. “This allows us to have good supplies with great varieties through most of September.”
Love The Variety
The stone fruit category covers a range of succulent pitted fruits, but traditional top sellers still remain competitive. “Peaches and nectarines are the two largest volume leaders,” reports Cox. “In our region, the largest volume fruit sold is Southeastern-grown peaches, and consumers prefer the Freestone varieties.”
The cherry lovers at George’s Market at Dreshertown start asking about cherries long before their arrival. “When they do arrive, it seems customers can’t get enough, and the season seems never long enough,” says Grace. The many choices afforded to retailers assist in boosting sales. “The more types of stone fruit you carry, the better,” reports Simonian with Simonian Fruit Company. “These include white- and yellow-fleshed peaches and nectarines along with two or three colors of plums or Pluots.”
Knowing your customer coincides with what sells. “Each market must determine what is needed for its particular area,” explains Cox. “The display space given to stone fruit plays a role in the varieties carried. It is important to display each variety with an ample selection for the customer.”
Customers at George’s Market have a particular preference for black plums. “Everyone has their favorite, but when it comes to California plums, the black plum is often on the shopping list with the red-fleshed Black Splendor being the ultimate find,” says Grace.
Variety awareness fluctuates within the stone fruit category. “In a commodity like Plumcots, each variety is very unique in its appearance and flavor, so it’s more likely that consumers will take note of the variety name,” states Dovey Plain, marketing coordinator with Family Tree Farms located in Reedley, CA. “With regard to a peach or nectarine, we actually strive for consistency from variety to variety.”
Look To Future Stars
To keep the category competitive, industry suppliers such as Dayka and Hackett, located in Reedley, CA, continue to develop and test new varieties.
“We have great success with red-fleshed plums and continue to push in that direction,” states Monty Robison, product manager. “A few shippers developed multiple varieties of Pluots and introduced different PLU numbers.” Growers for Sunny Valley International work closely with Rutgers University’s Department of Agriculture for recommendations on new varieties optimal for the New Jersey growing area.
“While many consumers think the red-colored variety peaches have the better flavor, in truth, exterior skin color has little to do with the flavor of a peach,” says Von Rohr. “There are many varieties of peaches with a yellowish-red skin that eat exceptional.” Retailers can introduce new varieties to add excitement to the stone fruit category. “The Prince variety of peaches in Georgia are a collection of a series of varieties consumers are becoming familiar with,” explains Lane of the Georgia Peach Council. HMC Farms, located in Kingsburg, CA, suggests retailers keep their eye on the plum category for future fame. “New plum varieties will breathe new life into a category that has provided some consumers with disappointment in the past,” explains Chelsea McClarty Ketelsen, vice president.
Although not a brand new product, the white-fleshed peach continues growing in popularity. “Representing about 10 percent of the total stone fruit volume, the white-fleshed peaches grown in New Jersey are low in acidity and high in brix,” states Von Rohr. “There is a following of customers who enjoy this sweet peach.”
Family Tree Farms offers a Peach Pie Donut peach described as a flat, yellow-fleshed peach with no blush whatsoever. “We describe it as ‘heirloom style’ and as having ‘backyard-peach tree’ flavor,” explains Plain. “The parentage of this variety is largely canning-style Cling peaches, so it has a dense flesh with a perfect peach flavor.”
Make It Visible
The excitement of the stone fruit season leads to great promotional opportunities. K-VA-T Food Stores merchandises large displays of stone fruit at the entrance of the store or department. “This will move much more volume,” explains Cox. “Yes, there will be more shrink, but the sales will greatly outweigh the cost of shrink.”
Location plays a large role in whether or not the produce finds its way into the shopping cart. “Obviously, the customer has to be able to find the display,” says Simonian with Simonian Fruit Company. “A large-sized display will capture their attention more easily.” Von Rohr suggests displays be front-and-center and well stocked. “Emphasize to shoppers that size and color does not guarantee how good a peach is going to taste,” he adds.
Allowing the shopper to taste for themselves maximizes sales. “Sampling works great, because if they try the fruit and like it, they will most likely purchase it,” states Simonian.
K-VA-T agrees sampling stone fruit at the peak of the season is a sure win. “Especially when you sample an item that is not the core of the category, for example white-fleshed nectarines, peaches or raspberry Plumcots,” explains Cox. “This type of sampling will move the consumers to other stone fruit items to go along with the core items.”
Know What You’re Selling
Retailers must have a “first-hand” experience. Robison of Dayka and Hackett suggests staff should be involved in sampling the fruit. “You cannot tell a customer how the fruit is if you have not tried it yourself,” Robison emphasizes.
Appropriate training of retail staff better delivers a good product. “Everyone working within the department should be educated on the proper handling of peaches,” states Von Rohr of Sunny Valley International. “How the peach is handled from harvest to packing to shipping, at store level and at consumer level are all important elements of how good the peach will be.”
According to George’s Market at Dreshertown, rotation and culling are vital and are a daily ritual. “We are also very careful not to break the cold chain or fluctuate temperatures as it seems to help prevent dehydration and mushy flesh,” adds Grace. Educating the shopper on the characteristics of a good fruit will also benefit sales. “Many consumers think ripeness is the softness of the peach, yet a soft peach does not always guarantee a flavorful sweet-eating peach,” says Von Rohr. “A peach picked too early off the tree and left to get soft will not have the flavor or sweetness of a peach left longer on the tree to mature naturally to its peak flavor.”
Stores can utilize online resources to find information to share with consumers. “In today’s age, the Internet is an excellent resource to learn about stone fruit care, handling and recipes,” explains Von Rohr. “The New Jersey Peach Council is also an excellent resource for peaches.” K-VA-T Food Stores provides point-of-sale material to help teach consumers key points. “This includes how to select and how to ripen,” says Cox. “It also tells them what not to do, for example, never refrigerate, unless the fruit is cherries.”
The right flavor profile considers brix as well as other factors. “All peaches have a certain amount of sugar and acidity at harvest, and as a peach ripens/softens, the acidity dissipates and more sweetness is evident,” explains Von Rohr. “It is important to understand once a peach is picked from a tree it cannot get any more brix since the tree helps provide the level of brix within the peach. We pick the peaches closer to maturity to allow more brix to develop within the peach.”
While brix level is important, so is acidity. “Consumers should also understand how the acid level in the fruit also determines the flavor profile,” says Robison of Dayka and Hackett. “Some customers like lower acid fruit, and yet others like a more acidic taste for stone fruit. Generally speaking, white-fleshed fruit is lower in acid than most yellow flesh.”
“Sweet fruit is important, but high brix alone is not the sole determining factor of a successful variety,” explains Jeannine Martin, director of sales for Giumarra/Reedley with Los Angeles-based Giumarra Companies. “It is important to offer varieties that are high in flavor and aroma qualities, as well as sweetness, to bring the consumer a complete eating experience.”
Promoting the fruit’s origin provides another way to create excitement for purchase. “It is important to promote stone fruit as California grown or wherever the locale is, because the consumer will remember the next time they purchase to look again for California fruit if they enjoyed their previous purchase,” says Simonian of Simonian Fruit Company.
As a store located in Southeast Pennsylvania, George’s Market at Dreshertown considers itself fortunate to be neighbors with not only New Jersey and its wonderful fruits, peaches and nectarines, but they are also within distance to source from T.S. Smith & Sons orchards of Bridgeville, DE.
Grace explains, “T.S. Smith offers the most amazing ‘juice-runs-down-your-chin’ yellow peaches. They arrive in wooden crates where they were packed when harvested in the orchard, sometimes with leaves still attached! Customers familiar with them can’t wait for their arrival. By far, both Jersey stone fruit and Smith’s fruit are a customer favorite.” K-VA-T Food Stores agrees to the importance of calling attention to where the fruit is grown. “For example, consumers know Georgia as the peach state,” says Cox.
Lane of the Georgia Peach Council adds, “The brand value in Georgia is huge, and we see consumers respond to it as far west as Montana and as far north as New York.”
A superior product conveys quality throughout the process from farm to the store level. Grace of George’s Market at Dreshertown had the opportunity to visit Family Tree Farms in California. “I was very impressed with the care and pride they took in everything from their orchards (mostly plums and Pluot varieties and peaches) to their packing house,” says Grace.
Put Packaging To Work
The addition of new packaging techniques stimulate greater sales opportunities. “Incorporating packaged fruit in a display is a way to offer a variety of sizes or showcase a certain variety/commodity unique to a specific time frame,” says McClarty Ketelsen with HMC Farms.
According to Simonian, clamshells and fixed-weight bags are some of the new packaging to be introduced the past few years. “Usually they offer advantages, because the fruit doesn’t get bruised, helping shelf life,” he explains. “And, there is typically space for recipes, nutritional information, and fruit facts to engage the customer.”
Dayka and Hackett is promoting its new 2-pound, fixed-weight bag. “There are “10 bags in a box consisting of peach, plum, nectarine and Pluot,” explains Robison. “We have seen an increase of incremental sales. It runs well if you have a two-tier program.”
Stores can also take advantage of packaging to easily make displays. George’s Market at Dreshertown is proud of its creative displays thanks to the suggestion of one of its growers. “We use the original decorative boxes from Family Tree Farms that sport a drawing of one of their family homes making their fruit not only delicious but fun to display,” says Grace.
Packaging specialty items draws attention to the shopper. “Our Donut peaches are packed in a three- or four-count clamshell that nicely shows off their shape and color,” explains Plain of Family Tree Farms. “Retailers love these because they tend to bring a larger purchase than the consumer might have otherwise picked up.”