Get creative with displays so shoppers gravitate toward the category.
Originally printed in the August 2023 issue of Produce Business.
Washington State’s apple industry has endured challenging times over recent years. The 2022-23 crop fell by 11% — from 120 million cases to 108 million cases — according to the Washington State Tree Fruit Association (WSTFA), a hangover from damage caused by an unexpected heatwave in June 2021 followed by a cold, rainy spring.
It also appeared to continue a recent pattern: According to the USApple Association, between 2019 and 2022, the Washington crop dropped by more than 20%, from 181 million bushels to 143 million bushels.
However, if the predictions are correct, 2023-24 looks set to mark a recovery. In the Washington Apple Commission’s statistical review from April 2023, commission president Todd Fryhover reveals, after more predictable spring weather, the industry is on course for a 130 million (40-pound box equivalents) crop, or even higher. And this outlook is echoed by the assessments of industry insiders.
CHALLENGES OF A SHORT YEAR
According to Brianna Shales, marketing director at Wenatchee, WA-based Stemilt Growers, the 2022-2023 crop (harvested last fall) will go down as one of the smallest crops in recent years. The “short” year was compounded, she says, by weather events that led to quality and sizing challenges for certain varieties.
“Overall, the category has seen elevated dollars due to inflation and supply, but year-over-year volume decreases because of fewer apples available nationally,” says Shales. “At Stemilt, we’ve navigated the unique crop by focusing on varieties where there were opportunities to promote and help retailers merchandise apples effectively.”
In the opinion of Roger Aguirre, director of apples and pears at Vancouver, Canada-based Oppy, the lower-than-expected crop led to increased pricing, but this did not automatically translate to higher sales. “I think we did what we could (as an industry). While we needed to raise pricing, it slowed down movement more than anything,” he says.
According to data quoted by Aguirre, Fuji and Gala were both down by 7%, Braeburn by 13%, Red Delicious by 3%, Ambrosia by 8% and Cripps Pink by 6%. The contrast to these has been increased production for club varieties, such as Envy, which — along with Jazz — is key for Oppy.
“A lot more club varieties have been growing in the greater Washington field, so our volume is up,” reveals Aguirre.
A similar assessment was given by Blake Belknap, vice president of sales at Selah, WA-based Rainier Fruit, who says tighter supplies of core varieties helped rising stars such as Envy convert consumers to newer, high-flavor apples.
Kaci Komstadius, vice president of marketing at Yakima, WA-based Sage Fruit, says while the 2022 crop was down by approximately 20%, the new season outlook looks brighter.
“We saw a significant reduction in apple volume across the industry for the 2022-2023 crop,” she says. “However, we are currently in the middle of our 2023 growing season, and so far, we are on track to have an excellent year.”
While concurring with the 20% figure, Jay Short, vice president of sales for Domex Superfresh Growers, Yakima, WA, says the company overall had a good year, thanks to sound planning and great partnerships, which allowed it to secure promotions. But, he admits, the season was not without its challenges.
“In the fall of 2022, we harvested the smallest Washington State apple crop in recent history,” says Short. “Trade barriers and unfavorable currency exchange rates make it more difficult to sell our apples overseas and our industry continues to be dogged by excessive regulation.”
Despite this, Short says the coming fall promises to bounce back, with the upcoming apple harvest looking very good in size, volume and quality. “Ideal spring and summer conditions have resulted in a strong fruit set in Washington,” he says. “We are urging retailers to promote apples all year, starting at harvest in August, and to expect a strong apple sales year.”
CLUB VARIETIES TO THE FORE
Specializing in both conventional and organic, Sage’s range stretches from Gala, Fuji and Golden Delicious through to Honeycrisp and Cosmic Crisp. This lineup is complemented by Sunrise Magic and SugarBee apples. Komstadius describes SugarBee as an outstanding apple, which begins harvesting in early October.
“Honeycrisp continues to be a consumer favorite, with SugarBee quickly rising in popularity,” she says. “Cosmic Crisp is also gaining in popularity.”
On the organic side, Komstadius says Sage’s most sought-out item is Honeycrisp, following closely by Gala and Fuji. “Organic Honeycrisp is a high-end consumer favorite, which has an excellent ring at the register,” she says. “On the opposite side of that though, organic Gala and Fuji are an excellent option for the everyday, organic consumer because they are more price friendly.”
In terms of trends, Stemilt’s Shales says Cosmic Crisp has represented the biggest growth apple the company has seen in recent years. A Honeycrisp-Enterprise cross Stemilt is growing conventionally and organically, Cosmic Crisp has transitioned from a limited supply apple to a year-round variety that now ranks in the top 10 apples at retail.
“We expect it to continue climbing in the ranks, given its great attributes and volume that has yet to come into production,” predicts Shales.
For the 2023 crop, Stemilt also forecasts growth in its share of SweeTango apples, a Honeycrisp-Zestar cross that Shales says is highly promotable during September and October. Honeycrisp, however, remains Stemilt’s most popular variety, accounting for close to 30% of apple sales each year.
For Oppy, one recent major change has been the removal of Pacific Rose from its cartel of varieties, a move Aguirre says was brought about by slow export sales during the export window. However, Aguirre says the outlook is overall positive, thanks to the success being achieved by Jazz and Envy.
“We’re seeing a reduction in volume on Red Delicious, Braeburn and some of the smaller apples because people are experiencing a better eating-quality apple,” he says. “There are some really good apples out there, but for me, Envy stands out among all of the other varieties.”
Short from Domex Superfresh Growers says the evolution of apple flavors over the past two decades has been “amazing,” with the category continuing to upgrade. For Domex, Short says its proprietary apple, Autumn Glory, continues to grow in market share, increasing 21% in value and 12% in volume year-on-year. Cosmic Crisp, he says, has also taken off at a remarkable and record-breaking pace.
In just its fourth commercial year, Cosmic has earned the No. 7 spot for top apple category sales, and Short says the variety has become a “core apple” for many national retailers.
Rainier Fruit is another producer enjoying solid growth with Cosmic Crisp, both conventional and organic. The company is also anticipating increased availability of conventional and organic Envy, having transitioned more acreage, according to Belknap.
Additionally, Rainier is launching Washington-grown Wild Twist, a Honeycrisp-Pink Lady cross grown in partnership with Hess Brothers in Pennsylvania. Belknap describes it as a “fantastic eating apple with the best of its varietal parents.”
CATCHING CONSUMERS’ ATTENTION
Aside from having an overall marketing strategy, there is also the knotty issue of devising effective initiatives that work at the point of sale.
According to Sage’s Komstadius, retail displays must appeal to the consumer via color, size or display, or through new varieties and flavor profiles. High-graphic, clean packaging can help catch the consumer’s attention, she says.
If space permits, Komstadius recommends keeping apples refrigerated. “By keeping apples refrigerated, they retain more moisture, hold their shape, and maintain a crisp texture,” she continues.
Domex’s Short says interactive and informative point-of-sale materials — ideally digital — can make a significant impact at retail. He also recommends creative signage, informational brochures about apple varieties, and taste samples. “We recommend retailers refresh displays monthly to maintain customer interest and curiosity,” he adds.
Stemilt’s Shales points to packaging as a way of effectively reaching multiple consumer groups.
“It’s important to help consumers identify the many different apples in store, and what makes them unique,” says Shales. “Get creative with displays so shoppers gravitate toward the category. Apples are one of the best snacking items in produce and we should make sure consumers know that while they shop.”
Recent years have seen a multitude of campaigns encouraging consumers to “Buy Local” in a bid to support regional growers. But has the local movement affected marketing and sales of Washington apples?
Short argues the movement has impacted both, with consumers increasingly interested in locally grown produce. However, he says Domex has capitalized on this trend by spotlighting its Washington-grown apples and reinforcing the message of local, sustainable growth in marketing initiatives.
According to Shales, regional supplies have a bigger place in the apple category than they did a decade ago, largely because smaller growers have extended their seasons and modernized varieties. Despite this, she sees little impact on Washington’s standing.
“Washington still has the lion’s share of apple volumes and so it continues to be a source for promotions, especially in the winter, spring and summer months,” says Shales.
Citing campaigns in the Northeast, Oppy’s Aguirre says consumers tend to be loyal to the local crop. “There are huge Buy Local campaigns all over the place and I think these are great initiatives because we want all farmers to succeed,” he says.
However, Aguirre believes there is a danger in holding on to a piece of fruit longer than need be, just because it’s local. “As an industry, we want the eating experience of consumers to be high on apples,” he says. “To put a soft piece of fruit out there doesn’t benefit anyone. Washington growers do an amazing job, but sometimes the fruit gets old. You can put it in cold storage, but it isn’t meant to last.”