Try something new or different to make a connection with consumers.
Originally printed in the October 2023 issue of Produce Business.
Since 1970, U.S. fresh apple consumption has been flat, ranging from 15 to 19 pounds, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service statistics. Most recently, for the 2021-2022 season, Americans’ bite into this favorite fruit was at the lower end, or 15.8 pounds.
This flatlining isn’t for lack of availability. Total U.S. apple production for the 2023-2024 crop year is forecast at 250 million bushels, up 1.5% from last year, according to the U.S. Apple Association’s (USApple) Industry Outlook 2023 report.
While there’s not a magic bullet or one-size-fits-all approach, the way to move the needle on apple consumption and sales is to try something new.
“Forty-eight percent of consumers say they generally buy the same variety of apple every time they shop,” says Chris Gerlach, director of industry analytics for Falls Church, VA-headquartered USApple, in a release. “That means 52% of shoppers might be willing to make an apple purchase based on different attributes, like flavor, appearance and store promos.
“With an almost 50/50 split, there are opportunities to harness consumers’ love of a familiar favorite or to sell them something new.”
1. FOCUS ON FLAVOR
Consumers often respond with their wallets when presented novel or unique taste experiences. CMI Orchards LLC, in Wenatchee, WA, offers retailers two programs to convey this message. One is Apple Flavors of the World, where point-of-sale (POS) and shipper displays showcase the unique origins, and flavors, of apples that originated around the globe and are today grown in Washington State. Kiku grown in Italy, Kanzi from Belgium, and Envy developed in New Zealand are examples. The second program is Flavogram.
“Many people think of apples as either red or green. The challenge and opportunity are how to get the message about all the flavor differences across and drive trial,” says Rochelle Bohm, vice president of marketing at CMI.
“Many people think of apples as either red or green. The challenge and opportunity are how to get the message about all the flavor differences across and drive trial.”— Rochelle Bohm, CMI Orchards, Wenatchee, WA
Flavogram is a tasting guide that uses a color bar to convey flavor. A pink color on the left conveys sweetness while the green to the far right indicates tart, she explains. The graphic is available as customizable POS for in-store apple displays, where customers can look at the flavors they like and match these to trade up and try newer varieties.
The New York Apple Association (NYAA) will roll out its new The Big Flavor campaign this fall.
“Shoppers will always reach for their favorite classic apples and are often willing to select a new variety, too,” says Cynthia Haskins, NYAA president. “The flavor is what builds loyalty and brings them back to the store to purchase again.”
“Our growers continuously reinvent their operations in search of what’s next in providing tasty apples,” she added. Newer varieties include SnapDragon, RubyFrost, and New York-grown SweeTango, EverCrisp and WildTwist. “Each has a distinct flavor profile and texture.”
The Big Flavor campaign includes content for retailers’ in-store and online marketing, and high-graphic poly totes, poly bags, and pouches designed to encourage grab-and-go purchases. Geo-targeting partnerships will also play a role in The Big Flavor campaign.
2. CALL OUT SEASONALITY
Apples are one of the top-performing categories in the produce department year-round, says Steve Tursi, Mid-Atlantic produce team member for Grocery Outlet, a 457-store chain headquartered in Emeryville, CA. “Thanks to domestic controlled atmosphere rooms and the growth of international importing, apples have a consistent quality with a wide variety of options allowing the category to perform well year-round.”
However, not all apple varieties are available for 12 months.
“Most managed varieties like SweeTango are an LTO (limited time offer) and stores should capitalize on that sense of FOMO (fear of missing out),” says Jennifer Parkhill, executive director of the Emmaus, PA-based Next Big Thing Grower Cooperative.
For example, the co-op added a “find a SweeTango seller near you” search tool on its website. Customers can quickly look up their ZIP code and find a store near them that stocks SweeTango. “It has resulted in an explosion of local stores carrying SweeTango while they are available.”
Focusing on certain varieties during its peak season is a great way to gain consumer interest, adds Brianna Shales, marketing director at Stemilt Growers LLC, in Wenatchee, WA.
“We see retailers introduce new varieties successfully through Apple of the Month programs. Also, in-and-out promotions can be effective for taking advantage of opportunities in the crop and ensure the apple display stays fresh and relevant to shoppers. Multi-variety ads are key to lift the whole category.”
3. CURATE THE ASSORTMENT
The number of commercially produced apple varieties is so large that most retailers don’t have enough display space for them all. That’s where a curated selection comes in.
“We have discontinued old traditional and softer apple varieties like Red Delicious and Golden Delicious, and instead offer newer varieties that check the box for crunch, juiciness, and a combination of sweet and tart,” says Max Maddaus, produce director at Kowalski’s Markets, an 11-store chain based in Woodbury, MN.
“Honeycrisp is the crown king of the category, and it’s a Minnesota apple,” he adds. “Then there’s Pink Lady and, in-season, Rave, SweeTango and First Kiss. Innovation is what drives sales. For example, Wild Twist has been a massive success.”
Branded apples comprise only 11% of the volume share of the apple category, but grew 21.2% in volume, with an average price of $2.19 per pound, according to Nielsen IQ Syndicated data from June 4, 2022, through June 3, 2023, as shared by Category Partners, in Idaho Falls, ID.
Foundation varieties make up 59% of category volume, down 7.3% with a price per pound of $1.76.
“The best-selling assortment strategies for apples involve offering a diverse range of varieties, packaging options, and both organic and conventional choices,” says Casey Jarrard, vice president of sales and marketing for BelleHarvest, in Belding, MI.
4. OFFER VARIETY BEYOND VARIETY
A something-for-everyone SKU assortment can drive sales, too. Present shoppers with small and large apples, convenient pack sizes and value-added sliced apples.
This year, JJB Family Farms, in Stockton, CA, introduced its snack-sized Modi Bites to the shelf. These are 2- to 2.5-inch Modi-named apples packed in a clear 3-pound bag, with a large Kwik Lok that does the talking for the red crunchy juicy apple. There are 12 bags in the “Retail Ready” display box. Grown in California, the apples are also sold in bulk and 2-pound pouch bags during its September-to-December availability.
Preferences for bag styles vary by region, according to Kaci Komstadius, vice president of marketing for the Sage Fruit Company, in Yakima, WA. “In some locations, a 3-pound bag works just fine, and in others, a 5-pound bag makes more sense. We’ve seen a large increase in the demand for private label packaging from our partners over the last several seasons.”
Bags are a plus in areas where online shopping is popular.
“As a consumer, you don’t have to worry about the shopper picking the apples out for you. Rather, with bags you know the apples have been washed and vetted through a defect sorter. Bags make it easy to add to your online cart,” says Trish Taylor, marketing manager for Riveridge Produce Marketing, Inc., in Sparta, MI.
Tursi at Grocery Outlet says they have achieved increased apple sale penetration by providing bagged organic apple offerings and pre-sliced options for conventional apples.
Non-browning Arctic apple slices — which have a 28-day shelf life and are available in Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, and now a limited availability of Fuji — are perfect for the value-added produce section, according to Rebecca Catlett, director of marketing and communications for Okanagan Specialty Fruits Inc., in Summerland, British Columbia.
Value-added (fresh cut) produce represents 22% of total produce sales, Catlett says, and this category continues to see growth year over year.
“We know that kids are more likely to eat produce when it is cut or sliced,” she adds, and Okanagan offers Retail Grab ‘N Go packages in 2- and 5-ounces.
“Also, we provide our slices in bulk packaging so partners can assemble their own fruit trays or other in-store ready-to-eat fresh offerings, both of which can encourage a higher ring from the produce section.”
5. DISPLAYS — SIGN ’EM RIGHT
Effective apple displays are crucial for driving sales, says BelleHarvest’s Jarrard, and key aspects include eye-catching visuals, product organization, and clear signage highlighting variety and origin.
POS is one way of communicating the breadth of the apple offering, says Eric Le Blanc, senior vice president of marketing for Category Partners. “If we want shoppers to think more about apples, we need to talk more about apples, and we can do that in fun and engaging ways.”
Display signage is one of the biggest missed retail opportunities, says Jessica Wells, executive director of Crunch Time Apple Growers, in Lockport, NY, which markets RubyFrost and SnapDragon apple varieties.
“I have visited stores across the country and would often find displays mislabeled or not labeled at all,” she observes. “With bagged apples, this is less of a problem because the bags speak for themselves; with bulk apples, shelf labels are critical to selling apples at all, but to sell more apples year-round, descriptive signage is a key component.
“Consumers have a lot of choices. If there isn’t descriptive signage and there are multiple red varieties, they are going to choose nothing or what they know — maybe not the best apple that will keep them coming back for more,” says Wells.
6. GO FOR SAMPLING 2.0
The pandemic took a big bite out of in-store sampling. However, creative thinking is bringing it back in a new way. For example, Honeybear Marketing LLC, in Elgin, MN, and Cub, a Stillwater, MN retailer with 100-plus locations, have teamed on the grower’s Adopt-an-Acre sustainability program, which raises awareness about pollinator habitat with themed in-store displays of MN-grown apples in the fall. A portion of the proceeds of this fall promotion enables retailers to fund pollinator habitat on orchards from where they source.
“An e-commerce part of this promotion is providing a sample bag of MN-grown apples, such as Honeycrisp, in curbside pick-up and delivery orders,” says Kristi Harris, brand manager for Honeybear, whose brand varieties include Pazazz and First Kiss.
Beyond this, Crunch Time Apple Growers samples at community events.
“Introducing consumers to our apples where they are gathered, at a sporting event or community event, allows us to reach across retailers. While in-store sampling can be very effective at the moment, the impact might not be as far-reaching as an event attended by consumers who shop at multiple retailers,” says Wells.
7. MOVE BEYOND PRICE PROMOTIONS
Promotions remain one of the best options to increase sales in both conventional and organic offerings, says Grocery Outlet’s Tursi. “Apples can satisfy a variety of customer needs, such as snacking, baking, summer salads and children’s lunches. Back-to-school promotions have been able to remain seasonally relevant while providing solutions to customer needs.”
To maximize sales throughout the year, promotions should adapt seasonally, recommends BelleHarvest’s Jarrard.
“For fall, promote the freshness of newly harvested apples, often with traditional fall themes such as apple picking and outdoor activities. In winter, highlight apples as key ingredients for holiday recipes like pies, crisps and cider. In spring, focus on the health benefits of apples, positioning them as nutritious and convenient snacks. For summer, present apples as refreshing, portable snacks for outdoor activities and picnics. Highlight their natural sweetness and hydrating qualities.”
• • •
The top 5 apple varieties by dollar sales are:
- Granny Smith
- Red Deliciouspb
Source: Nielsen Total U.S. data for the 52-weeks ending Aug. 26, 2023, as provided by New York, NY-based Nielsen.
• • •
INSIGHTS ON MULTIFACETED APPROACH TO ‘TRADING UP’ ON APPLES
Varietal development in the apple category has gone gangbusters over the past two decades. It’s been enough to take a substantial sales bite out of the decades-old, top-of-the-barrel favorite, Red Delicious. A big part of what’s new is branded apple varieties.
An international mover-shaker on this front is New Zealand. Varieties like Jazz and Envy, developed by Auckland, NZ-headquartered T&G Global Limited, have been strategically bred from a suite of successful apple strains, including Royal Gala and Braeburn.
In a category where apple consumption is flat, the key to growing sales and consumption is not only a flavorful apple, but new marketing and merchandising techniques to drive trial and repeat sales. A good example is T&G’s work with Envy.
“The economics around the orcharding side of Envy is excellent, but most importantly, our consumer research has shown it to provide a fantastic eating experience.”— Gareth Edgecombe, T&G Global Limited, Auckland, NZ
“The economics around the orcharding side of Envy is excellent, but most importantly, our consumer research has shown it to provide a fantastic eating experience,” says Gareth Edgecombe, T&G’s chief executive officer. “This has given us confidence to plant, both in New Zealand and Washington State, with a 365-day program.”
“Our strategy has been to get consumers to enjoy an excellent eating experience. This will drive repeat purchases. If we do that several times, we start to build brand loyalty within households and drive momentum in the category.”
And that’s what is happening with Envy now, Edgecombe says. “Last year, we had a 27% growth in units. That’s on the back of double-digit growth for the past couple of years. Importantly, it’s driving new penetration into a fairly tired category.”
Encouraging consumers to pick up, buy, and try a new variety is easier said than done. It takes a multifaceted branded promotional approach both in-store and out.
“For example, we can work directly with the retailers on the point-of-sale data to create offers for consumers that have been purchasing Gala in the past and encourage them to trade up to try Envy,” explains Cecilia Flores Paez, T&G’s head of marketing.
“This gives us quite a precision approach to being able to spend against those consumers to give them that brand experience. The proposition for retailers is bringing stimulus and excitement, but also lifting their overall dollar category ring,” says Flores Paez.
This approach will be applied to T&G’s latest variety, Joli. Commercial availability of this large red, dense, juicy apple with a balance of sugar and acid is projected in two years out of New Zealand and five years from the U.S.