Originally printed in the October 2020 issue of Produce Business.
Nearly 20 items to check off in this multi-faceted approach to effective merchandising.
When it comes to merchandising apples, retailers have a surprisingly large and impressively effective arsenal at their disposal.
All they need to do is utilize it.
Smart in-store merchandising, along with a wide selection of popular varieties, a social media presence, catering to regional preferences, and promoting health are only a few of the arrows in supermarkets’ quiver. The more multi-faceted the approach, the stronger and more consistent will be the results.
“Knowing both your product and your customer are always the keys to success,” says Maggie Travis, sales associate with Rice Fruit Company in Gardners, PA. “We know the market is hungry for fresh apples by the time the summer heat starts to wind down, replaced with the cool, crisp air of autumn. People have an innate, instinct to crunch into apples this time of year.”
REACHING AND RELATING
With an abundant supply of top quality apples in place, all that remains is for stores to reach as many consumers as possible in ways they can relate to and appreciate. These include the following:
• Stock What’s Hot: Which varieties are hot this year? According to Roger Pepperl, arketing director for Stemilt Growers LLC in Wenatchee, WA, Honeycrisp “is always hot.” Cosmic Crisp “will be extremely hot, with volumes jumping by three times and demand red hot.” Trademarked varieties such Rave and SweeTango, he adds, “are on a tear right now. They have unique flavors and great crunch and juice.” Pinata is a trademarked apple that does “incredibly well in the late fall and winter, and has become year-round in availability because it has so many uses, such as snacking. But it is great for culinary uses, also.” Endcap merchandising is helping develop these items. Using high-color cartons with attractive displays also helps move product.
Honeycrisp “is always the most desired” variety, says George Harter, vice president of Marketing for CMI Orchards, LLC in Wenatchee, WA. Additionally, organic branded apples such as Envy, Kiku, Kanzi, Ambrosia, Jazz and Smitten are also proving highly popular.” These varieties are being merchandised primarily in bulk and in pouch bags.
• Entice Customers: For strong fall sales, Travis says the key is bringing the fresh-from-the-farm feel into the produce section. During holiday features, both family and home-cooked meals become the focus. “Displaying simple ingredients in the produce section may inspire some baking for the adventurous cook. Customers often become more health-conscious at the start of the year.”
Suggesting an apple that is crunchy, juicy, and tastes great for desserts or snacking will help build a habit of adding apples to the grocery cart for the rest of the cold winter months, according to executives at Rice. “When temperatures warm,” says Travis, “varieties that refresh and liven up the taste buds will please the customer.”
With an abundant supply of top quality apples in place, all that remains is for stores to reach as many consumers as possible in ways they can relate to and appreciate.
• Know the Cycles: Planning for growing cycles is important. According to Cynthia Haskins, president and chief executive officer at Fishers, NY-based New York Apple Association (NYAA), Paula Red apples are one of the first varieties to come on, followed by Ginger Gold, Zestar and many apple varieties such as Honeycrisp, Gala, SweeTango apples grown in New York, Empire, Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, MacIntosh, Snapdragon, and more. “I spoke with a grower this morning, and he shared that early Honeycrisps in the Hudson area are scheduled to come on as early as the end of August/beginning of the first week September, with other varieties following suit.”
• Talk Geography: “New York is apple country,” says Jeff Cady, director of produce & floral for Tops Markets LLC in Buffalo, NY. “We definitely embrace (the local angle) here in western New York. As a rule, we group New York apples together and downplay western fruit until later in the season as some New York varieties wind down.” Apples represent between 5% and 8% of Tops Markets’ sales, depending on the time of year. “The autumn is prime-time, so we allocate more space during this time frame.”
According to Tenley Fitzgerald, vice president of marketing for New York Apples Sales, Inc., in Glenmont, NY, which in 2019 launched the Yes! Apples brand, regional branding is a powerful tool. “By creating a fresh name, look and feel, we are able to create a suite of marketing resources for retailers that will help drive apple sales. We are proud to be a born-and-bred New York company, and believe that much of what makes our apples so great is the unique terroir that our state provides. Retailers should highlight the unique attributes of our state that lead to the best-tasting apples. And they should feature the amazing men and women who are growing them. Since our apples are sold nationally, we are focusing on New York as our origin story. For consumers in the Northeast and East coast, that means local.”
• Ease COVID Fears: During the pandemic, Stemilt executives have seen bagged apples increase in popularity for the grab-and-go shoppers, the number of which have grown significantly.
• Emphasize Local: Local apples have what Pepperl characterizes as a “huge” presence in advertising and floor space during September and October, when supplies are strong. From November on “we see the Washington crop start to dominate the distribution.”
“We love being local for our partners,” Rice’s Travis insists. “Being located in the heart of Pennsylvania puts us within a day’s drive to some of the most populated cities on the East Coast. We work very closely with our buyers to communicate key moments for quick turnaround at the start of the season.” First to market “is the biggest rush of the year for us, every year. For a customer to have familiarity with where their food is grown gives peace of mind in supporting their local farmer, fresh from the farm.”
• Highlight Flavor Profiles: New York State grows hundreds of varieties of apples, and 26 of them are grown in larger volume and traditionally sold through the wholesale/retail markets, Haskins explains. Varieties include Honeycrisp, Gala, Empire, Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, MacIntosh, Snapdragon, Rubyfrost, SweeTango, Koru, Smitten and Wild Twist.
Flavor profiles for New York apples are what sets them apart from all the rest, Haskins claims. “Our rich glacial soils and climate makes for some of the best-tasting apples anywhere.” She and other officials have been hearing of an increased interest in local apples so they are focusing trade campaigns on themes such as “famous great taste,” “less miles to market” and “supporting family farms.”
Executives are expecting a good demand for bulk apples in addition to poly and pouch packaging. In fact, the New York Apple Association has expanded its new poly bags to complement many more of the state’s apple varieties. The poly bags come in three colors to complement different apples’ colorations and help customers quickly find their favorite varieties.
• Carry Variety: The number of varieties to keep in stock hinges on a store’s size and number of product turns. A produce department “needs to be able to turn the product in a way that at least a box a week can be brought in per department,” Pepperl suggests. He calls it surprising how many varieties are not performing at that level in store mixes. He sees 10 varieties plus an organic mix of four to eight bulk and bagged items as being the norm.
The optimal display size for apples again depends, this time on the retailer. “Some retailers like large-size fruit,” Harter notes. “Others will migrate to great eating fruit where there is the greatest supply (and) more flexibility on size and maybe even color.”
• Focus on Category Management: Pepperl recommends retailers carefully manage their selection of apples to make sure the varieties they carry are relevant and in demand. “It is okay to bring in a few new trademarked apples, but you must have a plan for promotion, placement, pricing and which products (to stock). Also, you need to have the right mix of bulk apples to bag apples.”
• Build Attractive Displays: Building attractive displays that get shoppers’ attention is crucial. “We love when we can get bins or shippers on the floor, adding that extra real estate to share the brand and the story of what the apple tastes like, and where it was grown,” says Travis.
The optimal display size for apples depends, naturally, on the department’s square footage. From 30 to 40 linear feet is typical. That said, apple sales in the fall and winter can account for 7% or more of total sales of a produce department, says Pepperl. “Apples are also a huge profit center for the department, so 10% of the department is very expected.”
• Ribbon the Fruit: Rice Fruit’s leadership is convinced that color ribboning of apples — arranged displays according to colors and shades — is always effective. “A rainbow always brings a smile, and people are drawn to colorful, healthy food,” Travis points out.
“With so many red and bi-color varieties of apples on the shelf, having something with a color pop is essential.” Cady of Tops agrees. “Using basically the green/yellow apples to break up the reds helps add definition to a variety. Without it, customers may be more confused than they already are while selecting from the 15 varieties.”
Indeed, color ribboning of apples, Pepperl maintains, “is a must. You need to do it on colors of red too, though. You have a green Granny Smith and a gold Golden Delicious, but we need to use the colors of red: Red Delicious is dark, Fuji is medium-red, Pink Lady is pinkish and Honeycrisp is more bi-color.”
• Cross-merchandise: Putting products together heighten sales of both.
Stemilt has done cross-merchandising with both Pinata and tropical displays. “The Pinata has a tropical taste alongside its great apple flavor.” Executives are marketing the carton with Classic apple taste with a tropical twist as a tag line. The tropical-looking cartons have developed what Pepperl calls “a new way to cross-merchandise.”
“Currently we do not pull apples out of the department too much,” Cady explains. “Cheese, apple corers, dips, wraps and a litany of other tie-in type items find their way into the produce department.” Suggestions by suppliers are also made for using apples in salads, sauces and pies.
Rice is similarly keen on exploring the world of cross-merchandising, Travis adds, “but truthfully we have not had the time to explore much of this option. As we focus on both the farm and the packing, and the marketing side, we have not had the time to focus on these partnerships.”
More retailers are offering consumers options in bags, pouches, and totes.
• Showcase Organics: Organic sales continue to increase each year, which has created additional promotional opportunities for retailers. In fact, organic branded apples continue to grow in popularity, CMI’s Harter notes, as consumers continue to look for healthy, high-flavor alternatives to the traditional offerings.
Pepperl is quick to point out as well that maintaining the right mix of organic apples is “very important, with organic providing 10% or more of sales.” Stemilt management sees organic “moving up in growth, with a 20% achievable goal being reached by many retailers already.”
Organic shoppers are traditionally big produce shoppers, Pepperl notes, so employing a three-pound, pouch bag program like Stemilt’s Lil Snapper for both organic and conventional apples “can work great for kids and families. Smaller, two-pound organic bags can erode the category with a large consumer like the organic shopper, so my big answer is the mix in merchandising.”
• Utilize Packaging: More retailers are offering consumers options in bags, pouches, and totes. “Any way that we can get apples into a basket without the apples being touched while in store,” Travis reflects, “is going to be a win this year in the COVID culture.”
EverCrisp availability will expand into 3-pound and 5-pound poly bags for the first time this year, providing additional branding on the shelf to connect with the customer. EverCrisp 2-lb pouches will continue to be available, Travis says, “but these apples grow big.” KIKU will be available in a 2-lb pouch and a 3-lb poly bag, and can be displayed in a two- or five-case shipper. “Don’t underestimate the need to highlight these products in online offerings. Both KIKU and EverCrisp are family-pleasing varieties, and will drive return sales.”
According to Haskins, apples are made available in 3-lb and 5-lb poly bags, as well as 2-lb pouches. “Totes are also popular. We did see an uptick in demand for the convenient grab-and-go poly bag and pouch bags of apples, and retailers still have plans for building displays of bulk apples. Consumers enjoy choices.”
• Use Social Media: New York Apple Sales’ Fitzgerald says she is eager to work with retailers in social media, since “so many decisions these days are being made via these platforms. So many shoppers discover new products through channels like Instagram, and we want to meet consumers where they are.” Her company is teaming up with stores on Instagram to create partnerships to provide consumers with recipes, live yoga classes and helpful tools for living sustainably, or sharing the stories behind growers and partners.
Stemilt continues to heavily support all of its products on social channels such as Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Says Pepperl, “We have a highly searchable web site with a current blog supporting content.” His company is also advertising on many social channels and services such as Spotify. “We have done food trucks, pop-up stores and display contests prior to COVID, and will revert back to guerilla marketing when this pandemic leaves us.”
“We began working with retailers on social media marketing plans last year,” Haskins recalls. “This year retailer partnerships for this mode of advertising are already in the planning. We are working with retailers on creating social media content that builds awareness for New York apples along with supporting retailers in their push/pull marketing plans for New York State apples.” The association is also inspiring repeat purchases with apple-centric social media posts. The content focuses on flavor, how-to recipes, growers’ stories and the “healthy and fun” recipe ideas. The organization is also working with retailer dietitians in determining dietitian-pick promotions.
• Educate Shoppers: NYAA developed a 12-page Dietitian Toolkit that includes nutrition content, preparation tips and recipes for healthy dishes, and includes complementary recipe cards and nutrition tips designed to be both quick and easy. “The Dietitian Toolkit is perfect for retail dietitians to integrate into blog and social media posts and virtual and in-person classes,” says Haskins. “This year, we are debuting the 21 how-to healthy recipe videos and making those available to retailers along with opportunities for developing customized cooking segments.”
• Suggest Recipes: NYAA has produced 41 how-to recipe videos, 21 of them recently. The videos feature Kelly Springer, registered dietitian for NYAA, and dish out healthy tidbits to go along with the how-to-healthy recipe videos. “We are making those available to retailers so they can place them on their social media and digital platforms,” Haskins says. The other 20 how-to recipe instructional videos are will debut this year on the association’s new website.
The how-to-recipe videos are “a quick and easy-to-use resource for anyone wanting a visual of how to make one of their new favorite dishes,” Haskins explains. NYAA is also posting videos via social media platforms and targeting marketplaces to bring a greater awareness of New York apples and their many uses to consumers. It has also been shipping their new recipes to retailers on convenient recipe cards.
• Support Causes: It is important to let shoppers know their values are shared. At New York Apples, executives know from research that consumers, especially millennials, are demanding more from their brands, and that their choices are an extension of their values. “As an extension of our own values, Yes! Apples partners with 1% for the Planet, and our funds support Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture and the National Young Farmers Coalition,” Fitzgerald says. “Through this partnership, our goal is to exemplify our commitment to our Earth and the legacy of our land and industry, and we believe that consumers will connect with these values, as well.”
• Engage the Community: In that same vein, Rice Fruit tailors its marketing support by each customer, as each has its own preference for promotion or key marketing efforts to focus on. “We enjoy finding ways to give back to the community,” Travis notes, “and have made charitable donations as a reward for loads sold. We are also planning for digital coupons this year.”