Maintaining Strong Apples Sales in Winter

Domex ApplesPhoto Courtesy of Domex Superfresh Growers

Educational signage and creative cross-merchandising are among the ideas for keeping sales going strong for the next few months.

Apple Bushel

Photo Courtesy of Domex Superfresh Growers

Apples grown in North America are harvested from August to November. Since consumers know they’re in season and associate the fruit with the return of cooler weather, fall is the season when sales are strongest. But interest in them doesn’t necessarily drop off during the winter months. If they’re well-promoted, apples can continue to grab big rings for retailers until spring.

Apples are one of the most popular foods in the produce department. According to the Produce for Better Health Foundation’s 2015 State of the Plate report, apples are the second-most consumed fruit in the United States, behind bananas. The Agricultural Marketing Resource Center (AMRC) shares that the average American ate 16 pounds of fresh apples in 2012, which was a slight increase over the previous year.

“January is our biggest apple shipping month of the year,” says Mike Preacher, director of marketing and customer relations at Yakima, WA-based Domex Superfresh Growers, one of the world’s largest growers and marketers of apples and other fruit. “Part of it is that there’s less competition from other fruits or locally grown items. But healthy eating is also on the minds of consumers coming out of the holidays, so we see good apple demand.”

“We allocate more space to apples as soon as summer fruit like peaches, nectarines, plums and apricots finish up,” says Greg Corrigan, senior director of produce and floral for Raley’s, which operates 121 grocery stores in northern California and Nevada under the names Raley’s, Bel Air Markets, Nob Hill Foods and Food Source. The company is based in West Sacramento, CA. “We see apple sales increase in the fall and winter. It’s a hearty item that keeps in the customer’s refrigerator more than most fruit.”

Nearly all of the popular apple varieties are available in the winter months thanks to controlled atmosphere storage, a technology that keeps apples fresh for longer periods of time. Knowing that, which well-known and new types should you be ordering this winter? And what are the best ways to merchandise them to get higher-than-average sales?

Controlled Stor‬age

“The apple harvest ends in November, but throughout the harvest period we place fruit into controlled atmosphere storage,” says Preacher. “This process arrests the ripening process until we are ready to reactivate it. That allows us to supply crunchy and tasty apples year-round on most of the main varieties.”

Controlled atmosphere storage works by removing the oxygen and ethylene gas from the rooms where apples are stored. Nitrogen and carbon dioxide levels are also monitored and manipulated to create the best possible conditions (which can vary depending on the type of apple in storage). This essentially puts the apples to sleep for a period of time.

“There are several varieties of apples — such as the Honeycrisp, Pink Lady and Opal — that are becoming more popular with our customers here on the West Coast.”

— Greg Corrigan, Raley’s

“When the apples are removed from storage, they ‘wake up’ and continue the ripening process,” says Diane Smith, executive director of the Michigan Apple Committee, Lansing, MI, which provides marketing, research and education services on behalf of the state’s apple growers. The apples are not altered or different in any way. There is no price difference and really no difference at all between fresh apples and apples that have been in storage.”

Michigan Apples

Photo Courtesy of Michigan Apple Committee

Washington, New York and Michigan are the top apple-producing states in America. The U.S. Apple Association reports that 15 varieties make up 90 percent of the country’s total production. Most are available in winter, including Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Gala, Granny Smith, Fuji, Crispin (once known as the Matsu), Braeburn, Cameo, Jazz, McIntosh, Jonagold, Empire, Honeycrisp and Cripps Pink (also marketed under the name Pink Lady).

“Honeycrisp is by far the most popular variety,” says Arthur Goncalves, vice president of produce and floral for King’s Super Markets, which has 25 locations in the Northeast and is headquartered in Parsippany, NJ. “Granny Smith are still very popular, as are McIntosh, Rome and Fuji. Then you have apples like Red Delicious that have really fallen off.”

“There are several varieties of apples — such as the Honeycrisp, Pink Lady and Opal — that are becoming more popular with our customers here on the West Coast,” says Corrigan. “The Fuji is still the most popular variety, but many of the lesser-known apples are catching on as well.”

Honeycrisp apples can present a problem in the winter because they historically haven’t done well in controlled atmosphere storage. Opinions are mixed about whether they’re a reliable winter apple, although the majority of people interviewed for this article say recent advances in technology mean Honeycrisps can be kept in controlled atmosphere storage without changes to their quality (as can the remaining popular varieties).

If you’re still on the fence about whether to include Honeycrisps in a winter lineup, suppliers may make up your mind for you. “Up to now, Honeycrisp storage hasn’t been a big issue because the apple sells out so quickly in the fall,” says Smith. “But as more Honeycrisp trees are planted, the issues with controlled atmosphere storage will be worked out to ensure Honeycrisp will be available to consumers into spring in the near future.”

The vast majority of apples consumed in the United States are grown in this country. The AMRC reports American growers produced around 4 million metric tons of apples in 2011. By contrast, 183,000 metric tons of apples were imported to the United States in the same year. Chile is the leading exporter of apples bound for the United States, followed by New Zealand and Canada.

New Varieties

There are a few new apple varieties that are available in the winter. Autumn Glory is marketed exclusively by Domex Superfresh Growers. It’s a firm apple with red and gold skin and a sweet flesh that contains notes of cinnamon and caramel. They should be available into January 2017.

Ruby Frost is a managed apple variety that was developed at Cornell University and is grown exclusively in New York. “It’s a deep, dark, ruby-red color,” says Molly Zingler, director of marketing for the New York Apple Association, a marketing, advocacy and research organization headquartered in Fishers, NY. “It’s a great eating apple, as well as a good cooking and baking apple. It makes for great pie; it makes for great fancy desserts.” And, she says, the apple’s flavor actually develops in storage.

The AMRC reports American growers produced around 4 million metric tons of apples in 2011. Chile is the leading exporter of apples bound for the United States, followed by New Zealand and Canada.

SnapDragon is another new managed variety from New York. The skin is red with a gold patch near the stem. The apple’s sweet flavor comes in part from its Honeycrisp parentage. It’s great for eating and can also be used for cooking. SnapDragon apples can be purchased in 2-pound pouch bags and for bulk displays, says Zingler.

An apple called Juici is expected to be available from a Washington grower beginning in the fall of 2017. It’s a dense, sweet apple that’s great for juicing, eating, baking and cooking. The Cosmos Crisp, which will also come from Washington, is a brand new variety that should be available in 2019. It’s a cross between an Empire and Honeycrisp, which will make it large, sweet and juicy.

S‬torage and Handling

Domex Superfresh Growers

Photo Courtesy of Domex Superfresh Growers

The winter months are a great time to push bagged apples. “Retailers always see good bag sales January through March because consumers are buying them for use in lunch boxes for their kids and home juicing,” says Yakima’s Preacher. They’re also trying to eat healthier and lose weight in the new year, which means they’re buying fruit in greater quantities.

This should also be a good season for bulk apple sales, predicts Preacher. “This year we have excellent volume, size, color and flavor — great ingredients for bulk apple promotions.” It’s best to display different varieties of apples next to each other so consumers can compare varieties.

In addition, “don’t forget to promote organic apples,” says Preacher. “We are expanding the availability window of organic varieties, and this year we will have a good, promotable supply of organic apples through winter and beyond.”

There are a few things the produce department should do (no matter the season) to ensure apples remain in good condition. “Retailers should educate their staff on handling apples like eggs,” says Zingler. “Bags shouldn’t be thrown. Place apples in displays individually.” Dumping them into displays can lead to bruising, which makes them less marketable and can spoil those around them.

“We hand-stack all of our fruit, so if there’s anything off-quality, we can pull it and it doesn’t even go on display,” says King’s Goncalves. “Keeping apples in refrigeration on display and at home can improve their shelf life,” says Raley’s Corrigan. That’s not always possible for stores, especially those with large bulk displays. But it’s worth investing in refrigerated cases when feasible, or putting bags of apples in coolers if space is available.

Signage is Key

Posting educational signage that describes the different apple varieties is one of the most powerful ways to increase sales. “We’ve got a lot of people looking for what’s the best apple, whether they want a tart apple or something else,” says Goncalves. “Anything produce staff can use to inform the customer can help.”

Signage can also be a helpful tool to get staff members up to speed on the different varieties so they can do a better job of helping consumers pick the best fruit for them. “We want to get people thinking not just of red and green apples, but what kind of red apple do I like?” says Zingler. “What are the characteristics of the apple? I think consumers are smarter today. Their buying styles have changed over the years. A lot of Millennials are real foodies. They want to know how they can eat apples and how they can use them.”

The New York Apple Association has POS signage available to stores for free. So does the Michigan Apple Committee. In fact, Smith says her staff loves working with brands to create customized POS materials that will meet their specific needs and marketing goals.

“We’re trying to do things now where instead of just handing someone a slice of an apple in a demo, we pair things with the apple to get people thinking about them in different ways.”

— Molly Zingler, New York Apple Association

If produce managers need information about apples, recipes, cooking tips and sharable social media posts, they can take advantage of the resources provided by associations. “Many consumers count on their local grocery store as a resource for healthy food and information,” says Smith. “We have a great deal of information on our website about health benefits, as well as snack and meal tips, and recipes. Retailers are welcome to share this information with their shoppers to encourage consumption of healthy fruits.”

Don’t have time to order signs? Lack the space to display them? “High-graphic bins with information on specific varieties is another great way to inform customers and create impulse purchases,” says Corrigan.

Given that consumers are thinking about eating better after the holidays, it’s also advantageous to inform them about apples’ health benefits. The fruit is high in fiber and contains other important nutrients, such as vitamin C and potassium. Recent studies have found that apples are full of antioxidants, good for gut bacteria and helpful at lowering “bad” cholesterol.

Other Tips

Handing out samples and doing demos are great ways to increase apple sales, especially when merchandising newer varieties. “We’re trying to do things now where instead of just handing someone a slice of an apple in a demo, we pair things with the apple to get people thinking about them in different ways,” says Zingler. Her organization just wrapped up the Big Apple Salad Sweepstakes, which encouraged people to submit recipes and photographs showing apples in salads. “Get people thinking outside the box,” she recommends. Apples can be effectively cross-merchandised with standard items such as crisp mixes, caramel dips, cider and pie crusts. To inspire creative cooks or party planners, try placing them next to things such as bagged salad, salad dressing and cheese.

Sharing recipes in store and online can drive apple sales. Capture free recipe suggestions from association websites or utilize resources available in-house. “We work with our chefs here if we’re trying to push a certain apple variety,” says King’s Goncalves. “They can suggest what customers can do with that apple. For example, the chefs might make recommendations about the best apples for different baked goods.”

Even though the availability of local fruits and vegetables goes down in the winter, people are still interested in knowing where their food comes from. Regions that can access locally grown apples in the winter can share information about the fruit with shoppers. “We promote and showcase our local apples and tell the local farmer stories,” says Raley’s Corrigan.

Here’s one more tip for keeping apple sales strong into the winter months: “Secondary displays in lobbies and near check stands are a great way to drive incremental apple sales, especially when selling at a promotional price point,” says Corrigan.