Bottom line: Shoppers don’t want to ripen fruit at home.
Originally printed in the June 2023 issue of Produce Business.
Americans hate to wait. In fact, nearly three-fourths of those surveyed said waiting in line made them feel bored, annoyed, frustrated and impatient, according to a June 2022 report, The State of Waiting in Line. Translate line waiting into dine time, and sitting tight until a piece of fruit is ripe and ready to eat can also be unappetizing for shoppers.
Ditto for retailers when it comes to register rings. Consider that in-store consumer acceptance of mangos more than doubled from 39% for mature unripe fruit to 87% for ripe fruit, based on 2015 research by the University of California, Davis on behalf of the Orlando, FL-based National Mango Board.
“Ripe fruit is a little more shrink, but a lot more sales,” says Paul Kneeland, senior vice president of sales and merchandising for Gelson’s, a 27-store chain headquartered in Encino, CA.
“We try and make things easy for our customers. They don’t want to ripen their own fruit at home. The more we can do on the grower side and in-store, the easier we make our customer’s lives. We want to deliver to our stores almost ready-to-eat fruit, so they get a day or two to sell it.”
WHAT CONSUMERS WANT
Ready to eat is always important, but it’s even more important now, in the post-pandemic era, says Jeff Cady, director of produce and floral for Tops Friendly Markets, a 149-store chain based in Williamsville, NY. “The number of store visits is back up to an average of twice a week. Consumers don’t want to buy something to eat next week. They want to buy it and eat it now. Or tonight. Or tomorrow. Then they come back and buy more.”
Consumers’ desire for ripeness at point-of-sale varies by the type of produce.
“Ripe bananas are proven to have a positive impact on overall produce department sales,” says David Byrne, vice president of sales for Thermal Technologies Inc., a Blythewood, SC-based commercial ripening room design and construction company.
“From there, it comes down to the individual retailer. Many are good with a single-color program of ready or almost ready-to-eat bananas, as long as they have ample shelf life to keep shrink to a minimum. Others may prefer a two-color program to meet the demands of both the ‘eat today’ and ‘eat later’ customer.”
Likewise, consumers select avocados based on different usage needs, such as whether to top a salad for tonight’s meal or to make guacamole over the weekend, meaning different avocado ripe stages can end up in the same basket, according to Jennifer Anazawa, senior category manager for Oxnard, CA-headquartered Mission Produce, referring to results of the company’s December 2022-released Avocado Intel Survey.
“Approximately 38% of shoppers are looking for firm avocados (ready in two to three days), 33% say it depends on usage and 28% are looking for avocados that are ripe and ready. Understanding this consumer buying behavior informs the industry to offer various ripening stages to retailers year-round.”
BANANAS & BEYOND
The produce industry is focused on increasing daily fruit and vegetable consumption, says Eric Ziegenfuss, category director of tropicals for Oppy, in Vancouver, BC, “and one way to do so is ensuring ready-to-eat produce is available.”
Bananas are the most ripened commodity in rooms by Thermal Technologies. “Avocados are the obvious second, but with increasing competition at the retail level, we are installing more and more multi-fruit rooms, enabling our clients to ripen everything from bananas and avocados to pears, mangos and even kiwi.”
The company has recently introduced its TarpLess ripening room smartphone application, which provides safe, fully functional operation and monitoring of all rooms in a client’s facility from a cell phone using secure VPN technology.
The basic elements of ripening essentially remain the same: temperature, humidity and the presence of ethylene gas, plus a bit of work around airflow, says Emily Kohlhas, director of marketing for John Vena Inc., located in the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market, in Philadelphia.
“The real innovation is applying the principles of ripening to new commodities that don’t have much of an established playbook, like mangos and papayas or even melons and pears.”
BANANAS. Ripening bananas for retailers involves “a carefully controlled process that aims to optimize the fruit’s quality, flavor, and appearance before they are sold to customers,” says Daniel J. Barabino, chief operating officer at Top Banana LLC, in Bronx, NY. “This process allows retailers to deliver bananas that are at their desired stage of ripeness, meeting consumer preferences and maximizing shelf life.”
A seven-day banana ripening protocol is used at Procacci Brothers Sales Corp., in Philadelphia, explains Rick Feighery, vice president. “If you bring bananas up to color in three days, you have three days to sell them. That’s why we have a seven-day program, to give retailers more time to sell at store level and customers to eat at home.”
“Still, once the fruit is ready, it’s got to go to the customer,” he adds. “It’s a high-risk business. The whole supply chain has to be dialed in for it to work.”
Despite their thick peels, bananas are a very delicate fruit, according to Bil Goldfield, director of corporate communications, Dole Food Co. Inc., in Charlotte, NC.
“Temperature and humidity are the two most important factors for ripening/pre-conditioning bananas and maintaining fruit quality at retail. We recommend bringing bananas inside the store immediately upon arrival. Remove box lids and any excess plastic sheets, pull plastic bags back, and cross-stack boxes. This dispels heat within each box, allowing maximum shelf life.”
Goldfield adds Dole advises retail buyers and produce managers to stock equal quantities of both ready-to-eat and almost-ripe fruit simultaneously and have found that those who do “maximize the opportunity for shoppers to increase their basket size.”
Some 35,000 boxes of bananas are ripened each week at M. Levin & Co., a wholesaler in the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market, in Philadelphia. “We also ripen plantains as well as avocados, mangos, tomatoes and pears daily,” says David Levin, owner.
AVOCADOS. “We bring in avocados that are triggered and have four days to sell them. We are looking at ripening them in-house, like we do bananas. We have a full-time and part-time banana ripener,” says Tops Friendly Markets’ Cady.
Retailers see more avocado sales success in the department if they offer a ripening choice to consumers, says Gary Caloroso, regional business development director for The Giumarra Cos., headquartered in Los Angeles. “Stage of harvest does play a role, as it takes longer to ripen avocados earlier in their season/bloom. The higher the oil content, the faster the avocado will ripen.”
One way that Robinson Fresh sells and packages avocados is called Daily ’Dos, according to Gina Garvan, vice president of customer strategy for the Eden Prairie, MN, company. “This includes a four-pack of avocados that are at different stages of ripeness. The avocados are packed in a proprietary tray lined with a film that absorbs ethylene to delay the ripening process helping to extend the shelf life by 21% or more, compared to bulk-ripened fruit.”
MANGOS. “Mangos have been the biggest growth area in ripe fruit selling. We do an amazing job with them, and customers do not have to guess when the fruit is ready,” says Gelson’s Kneeland.
Ripe mangos may be a “nice to have” at retail, but are non-negotiable for fresh-cut processors and foodservice operators, tells John Vena’s Kohlhas. “Like avocados, mangos from different growing regions tend to respond differently to the ripening process. These are living things that are never the same. It’s both a science and an art to produce consistent ripening results. The target never moves, but it’s a different arrow every time.”
Having ripe fruit on hand is also a good education tool, allowing consumers not as familiar with the product to know what it looks and smells like when it is ripe and ready, says Sandra Aguilar, marketing and strategic planning, for Ciruli Brothers LLC, in Rio Rico, AZ. “We are seeing more shippers managing the ripening process, and fewer retailers handling their own.”
KIWI. Gold kiwifruit naturally ripens later in the season, which is why it is pre-ripened early in the season, according to Oppy’s Ziegenfuss. “Eating a piece of sweet, pre-conditioned fruit can change a consumer’s perspective for the length of the season, so it is important consumers have a positive experience right from the start.”
STONE FRUIT. “We believe there is a lot of confusion with the term ‘ripening’,” says Harold McClarty, president of HMC Farms, in Kingsburg, CA. “In our opinion, ripening happens exclusively on the tree, where sugars continue to accumulate. There are no tricks to ripen tree fruit after it has been picked off the tree. The fruit can soften as it tree ripens or soften after harvest by delaying cooling. However, we strongly urge our receivers to keep stone fruit out of the ‘killing zone’, which is 38 to 50 degrees F. In this band of temperatures, stone fruit tends to become mealy as it softens.”
PEARS. In 2012, Nielsen Perishable Group research on behalf of the Pear Bureau Northwest (PBN) showed that stores carrying conditioned pears increased sales by 19.5% over those with non-conditioned pears, and sales continued to increase after the three-month test.
“Pears are a unique fruit in that they are harvested mature but unripe and ripen best off the tree,” says Jim Morris, marketing communications manager for the Milwaukie, OR-based PBN. “Early season fruit may need two to three days’ exposure to ethylene in a ripening facility, while late season fruit may only need 24 hours.”
Morris says conditioning pears can “enhance flavor and creates a more uniform environment for the pears to ripen evenly throughout a box and/or pallet.”
BALANCING THE SEE-SAW –RIPENESS, SHRINK & SALES
“Ripening is aging fruit to deliver uniform and consistent quality, so there is some risk that it accelerates the process too quickly, and there’s some product that doesn’t sell,” explains Greg Akins, president and CEO of Catalytic Generators, in Norfolk, VA. “But with the right ripening management and tools, there will be increased sales with little or no increase in shrink.”
Merchandising at the store level is key to shrink prevention in ripe fruit, too.
“We also advise retailers against shipping and displaying bananas with or alongside high ethylene-producing fruits like apples, avocados, tomatoes and melons (cantaloupe/honeydew), since ethylene triggers the ripening process,” says Dole’s Goldfield.
Ripened fruit needs to move fast, and sell fast, compared to non-ripened fruit, adds Oppy’s Ziegenfuss. “Produce managers should be knowledgeable of pre-ripened fruit so they understand how to display it and ensure it has proper rotation.”
A challenge can be communicating to consumers what fruit is ripe.
“Bananas are easy. There’s a color change. Same with Bartlett pears. But with other items, it can be difficult to tell. What our produce staff does daily is to go through displays and put ‘ripe’ stickers on fruit ready to eat that day and fill in with fruit that will last a day or two underneath,” says Tops Friendly Markets’ Cady. “This does two things. First, it identifies ripe fruit for customers. Second, at the end of the day, ripe fruit that didn’t sell is pulled off the display, sanitized and get moved into our in-house cut fruit program.”
A great way to eliminate avocado shrink is to make in-store guacamole, suggests Giumarra’s Caloroso. “We have seen that trend continue to grow across the United States and Canada. It is very popular with consumers.”
Lastly, there are benefits to training store employees, adds Ciruli Brothers’ Aguilar. “This is so that they are better equipped to handle ripe fruit and to answer questions about ripeness from customers.”