Fruit At Its Peak Helps Make Sales

Originally printed in the June 2018 issue of Produce Business.

Ripening becoming more critical as shoppers expect ready-to-eat foods.

Ripening programs are increasing among suppliers and retailers wanting to offer shoppers fruit at the desired eating level. And why not? Sales usually increase after retailers begin selling ripened product. Stores offering ready-to-eat fruit provide shoppers a more pleasurable experience, and that encourages return visits.

“Ripening programs enable retailers to maximize sales by attracting consumers who are looking to purchase produce they can eat today and tomorrow,” says Gabriela Reyes, assistant marketing manager for Del Monte Fresh Produce NA, Inc., based in Coral Gables, FL. “The rapid growth in avocado and other ripened fresh product sales is a good indicator of the success of produce ripening programs. Ready-to-eat fruit helps to build consumer confidence in the quality of the product and delivers a positive customer experience. The availability of ripe fruit supports sales across all fresh produce.”

Ripening plays into consumer demand for convenience, which is especially important for Millennials and Generation Z, says Emily Kohlhas, director of marketing for Philadelphia wholesaler John Vena, Inc. “It’s great to see a growing number of produce managers marketing fruit by ripeness level beyond bananas,” she says. “The statistics are clear on the matter: consumers want ripe fruit – especially when it comes to avocados.”

“Consumers want [ripened]. “Not only do they want it in the stores, they want it when they want it and want it now. They want that experience every day.”

– Gary Campisi, Global Produce Solutions

Numbers from major growers suggest consumers prefer ripe avocados by as much as 4 to 1, she notes. In 2017, 74 percent of target avocado consumers indicated ripeness was a strong purchase driver for the category, according to the Hass Avocado Board, based in Irvine, CA.

Because ready-to-eat fruit encourages repeat purchases, ripening is a value-added service most suppliers should offer.

Ripened Sells Better

“The advantage of selling ripe fruit is that it outsells hard fruit by 3 or 4 to 1,” says Robb Bertels vice president of marketing for Mission Produce Co., headquartered in Oxnard, CA. “That’s been our experience with avocados.”

Ripening continues to be important in produce merchandising, says Gary Campisi, president of the Rogers, AR-based Global Produce Solutions. The ripening pioneer and former senior director of quality control in Walmart Stores, Inc.’s Fresh Food Division, has ripened produce for 30 years. “Ripening never gets old,” he says. “It has become more important as more tropical items have come into play. There are people who want to try new and different items. If you do it right, you will definitely have an advantage, and your customers will recognize it.”

Demand is driving ripening products. “Consumers want [ripened],” says Campisi. “Not only do they want it in the stores, they want it when they want it and want it now. They want that experience every day.” A retailer must determine how they can provide that product consistently. “You have to find that level of consistency,” he says. “Consumers don’t understand supply and demand, but you have to figure that out and be more consistent more often so it’s in front of the consumers.”

While bananas, avocados, pears and mangos have long been ripened, more improvement is needed on properly handling ripened pears, say ripening experts. Although some retailers do well ripening pears, the overall category needs care, says Campisi. “When you get into the winter pear season, it seems people kind of forget about them; they’re not quite there,” he says. “My observation is we have some upside to come back and circle back on the pear category.”

Ripened Pears Vital For Sales

The Milwaukie, OR-based Pear Bureau Northwest employs a ripening consultant who works with receivers at their distribution centers, educating them on how conditioned pears may arrive differently. The consultant also can train the retailer’s ripening personnel on how to use its banana rooms for conditioning pears.

Ripening pears isn’t much different than ripening bananas or avocados. The bureau recommends retailers reevaluate and retrain their staff every couple of years to ensure standards and practices are being met to achieve maximum success, explains Kathy Stephenson, the bureau’s marketing communications director.

Inconsistency of pears being conditioned properly and carrying the right amount of produce to prevent shrink are critical, she advises. “Commit to the program at all levels,” says Stephenson. “Bring in correctly conditioned pears on a regular basis with a point of destination in the stores. Train the staff at the distribution center and store level so employees understand the process and how to handle, display and merchandise pears.”

Consistency is important because shoppers become accustomed to stores regularly offering pears that will be ready to eat within one to three days each time they shop the department, says Stephenson. Just-in-time inventory control with good supplier communications also helps. The process can take three to four days when warming and cooling is calculated to allow a shipper to properly condition and ripen the fruit, she says.

Merchandise Ripened Stages

As ripening technology continues to advance, Bertels sees the potential for displaying multiple stages of ripe fruit in the same display. Display some fruit ready for that day, some ready in two to three days, and some ready in four to five days, he says. “We’ve seen fruit merchandised by stages of ripeness in several markets and think there are distinct advantages to working toward that outcome,” says Bertels.

One of the pitfalls of displaying ripened avocados is the displays need to be efficiently merchandised. If the ripe fruit hasn’t been sold, it needs to be rotated so the display remains fresh and appealing, recommends Bertels.

The Orlando, FL-based National Mango Board provides an online training guide for the ripening and management of mangos, with customized programs for warehouse and store personnel and corporate management. Retailers that implement mango ripening programs experience double-digit increases in sales, says Angela Serna, the board’s communications manager. One retailer doubled its sales within two years of implementing the program, she says.

Display strategies should change to accommodate riper fruit that’s more tender and prone to bruising, explains Serna. Stores that take delivery of mangos once a week may need to consider twice weekly deliveries. “Retailers should use every opportunity to let customers know their produce is ripe and ready to eat,” she says. “As an impulse buy, most consumers want to enjoy mangos as soon as they get them home. In an age when competition is fierce, offering perfectly ripe fruit – consistently – will increase shopper loyalty.”

Promoting the availability of ready-to-eat produce is an important part of engaging consumers and can be achieved through stickers on the product or through on-shelf promotions, explains Del Monte Fresh’s Reyes. “It is important to consistently display ready-to-eat fruit as to engage and attract consumers,” she says. “Building consumer confidence is essential in creating a successful ready-to-eat program.”

It’s also important to work with produce managers and ensure proactive approaches to guarantee the ripest product is located at the top of the display, within easiest reach of the consumer, advises Reyes. “Education for produce managers about the program and the impact this may have on display management and produce rotation are also an important consideration,” she says.

Balancing Shrink And Sales

Internal and third-party programs help retailers ripen fruit and give shoppers purchase options. The choice of which way to go involves the retailers’ volume. “For most retailers, the decision starts with understanding available capacity in their banana rooms,” says Serna. They should also review their overall ripening portfolio. If they experience success ripening bananas, avocados or pears, mangos should be the next step, she advises.

Fruit is meant to be sold, not displayed, observes Serna. “For a retailer with a ripening program, every merchandising decision and practice should facilitate brisk sales and rotation of the fruit so shrink does not present a challenge,” she says. Success in mango ripening depends on temperature management from the farm to the basket, Serna adds.

Though volume dictates most of the ripening facility decisions, a factor left out of the equation many times is the experience and expertise a local wholesaler can offer retailers, notes Akins. “It’s hard to duplicate the knowledge wholesalers have in ripening many types and varieties of fruit. Plus, they have the specialized transport to deliver fruit at the right temperatures.”

There is a balance between shrink and sales, say ripening experts. “More and more retailers are recognizing it’s important,” says Global Produce Solutions’ Campisi. “The consistency isn’t where it needs to be. There’s a fine line in the balance between in-stock and ripened. Would you rather be out of stock or in-stock with something the customer wants?”

That balance is vital, says Karen-Ann Christenbery, manager of American Ripener LLC, a Charlotte, NC-based ripening room equipment supplier. “It is very important to assure the customer receives produce that is ‘ripe for tonight,’ she says. “Retailers do not want to receive produce and then have to wait several days for it to ripen on its own.”

“You may be able to maintain decent sales with a single display of hard fruit, but if you align your merchandising strategy with the consumers’ needs and offer fruit at the ideal stages of ripeness for a variety of popular uses, such as sandwiches and salads vs. guacamole, they’re going to come back to you again and again for that consistency.”

– Emily Kohlhas, John Vena Inc.

Bananas, avocados and tomatoes work better than others in ripening, says Christenbery. “More and more retailers and wholesalers are putting in ripening rooms or having third parties ripen for them,” she says. “Sales of fresh produce are increasing as people are becoming more health-conscious.”

Del Monte Fresh Produce’s distribution centers ripen fruit for many customers. Reyes anticipates demand will increase as retailers work to maximize sales. “Offering ripe fruit is an opportunity for retailers to drive frequency of purchase by creating confidence amongst consumers who they are able to purchase ready-to-eat fruit daily,” she says.

Ripened fruit is critical for sales, observes Kohlhas. “Keep in mind the stakes are long-term and the sales are yours to gain,” she says. “You may be able to maintain decent sales with a single display of hard fruit, but if you align your merchandising strategy with the consumers’ needs and offer fruit at the ideal stages of ripeness for a variety of popular uses, such as sandwiches and salads vs. guacamole, they’re going to come back to you again and again for that consistency.”

Alternatively, if consumers new to the category repeatedly take home unripe or over-ripe fruit without any explanation or education, their enthusiasm for the fruit is going to wane over time, or they will shop elsewhere for it, says Kohlhas.

Strong Signage Is Key

Signage is crucial when it comes to merchandising multiple stages of avocado ripeness, notes Emily Kohlhas, director of marketing for wholesaler John Vena, Inc., Philadelphia. Retailers should use separate, but adjacent, bins or baskets with clear signage to indicate stages of ripeness of avocado displays, along with intended usage so shoppers can easily identify the fruit that is right for them.

Affixing “Firm-Ripe” and “Ripe” stickers directly on the fruit is something distributors can provide. which helps reinforce the range of options provided to a store’s consumer base, says Kohlhas. “Providing the training necessary so in-store teams can take ownership of the merchandising process as avocados ripen will empower employees to regularly adjust and correct for local market conditions — not to mention sell more passionately, and, hopefully, effectively,” she explains.

For avocados, Kohlhas suggests offering fruit at two or three stages of ripeness, according to the shoppers’ needs. During holiday seasons, including Cinco de Mayo and the Super Bowl, three stages should be offered, she says. Offer hard Stage 1 fruit or just-triggered fruit (Stage 2) for families or older consumers who tend to shop weekly and aren’t looking to use the avocado immediately. Leftover inventory can be merchandized as ripe, if needed, says Kohlhas.

Norfolk, VA-based Catalytic Generators LLC, which manufactures ethylene production equipment for fruit ripening and degreening, has experienced increased sales for regionalized avocado ripening by retailers, wholesalers and packers. “This has led to a massive increase in sales of ready-to-eat fruit,” says Greg Akins, president and chief executive. “We’re starting to see the same for mangos. Once more, get on board with ripening on a localized basis, like with bananas and avocados, demand for mangos will increase.”