Hardiest varieties work best and make their most pristine statement.
A few years ago, Rita Neczypor, marketing and packaging design coordinator at Procacci Brothers, a produce wholesaler and distributor based in Philadelphia, made up a half-dozen fruit baskets for a customer, who then distributed them as holiday gifts or so she thought. It turns out the customer had left one behind in her car. Two weeks later, when she discovered the basket in her trunk, the woman called Neczypor to report her surprise at the condition of the fruit. Granted, it was winter in Pennsylvania, but Neczypor claims the fruit remained fresh.
“If the cold chain is not broken, our fruit baskets will last at least 10 days after shipped from our warehouse,” says Neczypor. “If someone is giving this as a gift, it has to look pristine.”
For any holiday season or celebratory events, retail grocery stores and produce distributors gear up to make and sell gift baskets. So, what kinds of fruit work best?
The hardiest fruits prevail, such as apples, oranges, tangerines, grapefruit and pears, says Richard P. Micheels, W.M.S. implementation manager and fresh pack manager for Indianapolis, IN-based Indianapolis Fruit. During holiday gift-giving time, “these items are typically in their peak harvesting period, so the fruit will be at its best.”
Finding The Best Fruit
Micheels believes in adding less-traditional fruits as well. “It’s a great way to differentiate the normal, everyday offering and provide a great basket with unique fruits. However, it typically increases the price points on baskets containing exotics.” Micheels suggests using pineapple, kiwi and pomegranates, as well as varieties of citrus such as “Stem-and-Leaf” Satsumas, with parts of the tree still attached.
Produce specialists at Publix use fruits in season, typically apples, pears, oranges, grapes, pineapple and bananas, says Maria Brous, director of media and community relations for Lakeland, FL-based Publix Super Markets, Inc., with stores throughout the southeast United States.
“Apples are always popular for their color and long life,” says Frank Paone, director of marketing for Procacci Brothers. Paone suggests using Red Delicious, Granny Smith and Golden Delicious, along with D’Anjou pears for their flavor and shelf life. What goes in depends on what retailers and customers want. Paone says Procacci uses a grading system and only the best fruits are chosen for the baskets.
He prefers using traditional fruits rather than exotics for baskets and leaves out bananas because they give off ethylene gas (which speeds ripening).
“We tinkered with the idea of using passion fruit or dragon fruit, but a lot of consumers are not sure what to do with them or how to eat them,” says Paone. “At the end of the day, we’re driven to customize based on what the marketplace demands. As people learn more about new items, trends emerge. We watch those trends to see if there are opportunities with those items.”
“We’ve been packing holiday fruit baskets for more than 50 years,” says Paone. “They get a lot more supervision than anything we do. We monitor this process very closely and make sure every piece of fruit sits in the basket the right way. It has to hold up all the way from our production room to the gift recipient.” Procacci ships from Maine to the Carolinas.
Grab And Go Versus Custom
Many retailers choose to supplement sales with pre-made baskets because “they are a great labor saver to free up the retailer’s staff during the busy holiday seasons,” says Neczypor. And the store doesn’t assume the cost for materials. “There are just so many baskets you can do in a day, and just so many people who are talented enough to pack them.”
Distributors and retailers agree November and December are the most popular months for fruit baskets. Although holiday fruit basket orders decreased after the recession, “we’re seeing the trend climbing upward,” says Neczypor. “Fruit baskets are a natural gift for any occasion.”
At holiday time, the Parsippany, NJ-based Kings Food Market chain will supplement its custom baskets with ready-to-go and customized baskets. Publix does the same. “During the holidays, we encourage fruit basket sales with pre-made baskets for grab-and-go gift giving,” says Brous.
Even with more people being health-conscious, retailers report a steady decrease in fresh fruit basket sales within the past 10 years. At Publix, Brous says trays and bowls with cut, prepared fruit are better sellers.
Customize For The Customer
Both the distributors and retailers recognize the appeal of adding other items such as a box of chocolates, a jar of jam, or cheese and crackers to raise the value of a basket.
At holiday time, Paul Kneeland, Kings’ vice president of produce, floral, seafood and meat, has the floral designers in his stores make the baskets. “The customer picks a price and the floral designer makes a basket in the price range, or we give the customer the option to pick out some other products, along with their produce, pay for them and bring them back to the floral designer to wrap up in a basket.”
He says custom baskets are more popular than the ready made ones at Kings. “It doesn’t take long to put a gift basket together and the customers get the sense that they are getting a service, which they are,” says Kneeland.
Kings, with stores in the Northeast, offers fruit in themed baskets, such as “lemon in a tea basket or garlic in an Italian basket,” says Kneeland. “The difference between the fruit baskets and the gift baskets is the fruit basket is 90 percent fruit.”
In addition to the custom baskets, Kneeland says gift cards and the Internet are also to blame for decreased sales for in-store fruit baskets. “In my experience, I’ve seen the fruit basket trends go down. Years ago, we would sell thousands of baskets for the holidays. But back then we didn’t have online sales. Today, our customers expect customization, since we are positioned as higher end.”
Online sales aren’t seen as competition since Procacci and Kings sell baskets on their own websites (Kings is the parent company for Balducci’s Market, which also sells gift baskets from its website, Balducci.com).
Neczypor agrees that the ease and choice in buying “the almighty gift card” has affected fruit basket sales. When a customer goes to the grocery store looking for a gift, they can buy a gift card without ever going to the produce section.
Working With The Retailer
“It’s an impulse purchase,” says Neczypor. “The customer has to know that the baskets are there, and that takes a commitment from the supermarket to promote the baskets in fliers and in-store.” She even sends ready-made signs to retailers to display at holiday time.
Indianapolis Fruit processes and ships its basket to the retailer within 24 hours of being made, says Micheels. Shrink wrap with perforated small holes is used to overwrap the baskets and provide breathability for respiration of the fruit, and help with condensation that builds up on the plastic during transfer from a cooler environment to a room-temperature display.
“Make sure to remove all types of labels, or place the fruit in the arrangement so those labels are not visible,” says Micheels. “This helps in giving your basket a much cleaner, fresh appearance, and helps enhance the colors of each variety of fruit placed in the basket. Use only the freshest fruit. Check your displays daily to make sure the product on display is fresh.”
While working in the produce department of a Wisconsin grocery store, Basket Ease founder Lawrence Knutson came up with a foolproof way to create a fruit basket. In 1977, Basket Ease, a family-run company based in Prior Lake, MN, was born.
Basket Ease kits have a basket, bow, wrap and instructions on how to put together a basic fruit basket. Plastic and wicker baskets are designed to cradle the fruit and hold it in place, creating a stable foundation. The most popular size for the Basket Ease recyclable baskets fits ten pieces of fruit. Larger ones hold 24 pieces.
Rebecca Gibson, director of operations for Basket Ease, says that it can be easy to put a basket together. Her company supplies most retail chains, including Piggly Wiggly and Unified Grocers, with its patented basket system.
“The colors make it look more festive, with Red Delicious apples, Golden Delicious, oranges and pears,” says Gibson. “Add inserts and cellophane tape to hold it in place, wrap it up and you’re done. Once you learn the basic design, you can make a basket in less than two minutes. It’s easy because every basket is the same.”