WAYS TO HEAT UP WINTER APPLE SALES

Originally printed in the January 2019 issue of Produce Business.

Simple selling strategies can go a long way toward capturing consumer attention.

Eating more low-calorie, high-fiber apples is a great way to keep New Year’s diet resolutions. What’s more, the old saying ‘An apple a day keeps the doctor away’ is especially true when it comes to wintertime colds and flu. In fact, this sweet crunchy fruit is a real flu fighter thanks to its ample immune-boosting phytonutrients called flavonoids. Combine this fact with the industry trend of bringing exciting new apple varieties out of storage and into the market after the first of the year, and this season is certainly a ripe time to keep the register ringing with apple sales.

“Apples are a good category for us after the first of the year when customers want to snack on something healthy,” says Mike Roberts, director of produce operations at Harps Food Stores, Inc., an 88-store chain based in Springdale, AK.

Winter is also ideal to give apples a little extra marketing and merchandising love. Although this favorite ranked third in sales of the Top Fruit Categories in 2017, according to FreshFacts on Retail, 2017 Year In Review, published by the Washington, DC-headquartered United Fresh Produce Association, the category overall declined 4.8 percent in dollars and 2.6 percent in volume. Here’s how to ignite the category:


1. SELL THE BEST-SELLERS

There was a time when winter played second fiddle to the fall when it came to selling apples. That’s because the domestic apple harvest, whether on the West Coast, Midwest or East Coast, finishes in November. There has long been an element of storage, even if nothing more than the 19th century method of storing fruit in a sealed barrel. But it wasn’t until the advent of controlled atmosphere (CA) storage, pioneered in the 1930s and given a boost at the turn of the 21st century with the introduction of 1-MCP, brand-named SmartFresh — which is used commercially to slow the ripening of fruit such as apples during storage — that apples became a common fixture on supermarket shelves after the first of the year.

“Today, CA is a standard procedure for storing apples,” says Jim Allen, vice president of marketing for New York Apple Sales, in Glenmont, NY. “Generally speaking, 80 percent plus of all our fruit is placed in some form of this storage. This may be either short term for a few weeks or long term for months. The purpose is to preserve the integrity of the apple by using every available tool, such as CA and SmartFresh, along with the best horticultural practices and timely harvest.”

Beyond eating quality, availability is a big plus of CA storage.

“CA storage enables us to ship apples year-round,” says Chuck Sinks, president of sales and marketing for the Yakima, WA-based Sage Fruit Company. “We have seen a decreased need to import apples due to the increased volume in which we are now producing and the benefits of CA storage.”

By January, most if not all apples on U.S. retail shelves are domestically grown fruit that is coming out of storage.

“The top-seven selling apples between January and March in the United States are Honeycrisp, Gala, Fuji, Granny Smith, Red Delicious, Pink Lady and Golden Delicious,” says Mike Preacher, director of marketing and customer relations for Domex Superfresh Growers, in Yakima, WA.

Although all varieties can be put into CA, some apples are naturally a better fit for a CA program than others, including almost all of those listed above, says Don Roper, vice president of sales and marketing for Honeybear Marketing, in Elgin, MN. “Other varieties have a shorter window in CA. Honeycrisp is a prime example. We can put it in CA and get it to store well, but by the time we start pulling Honeycrisp out of CA rooms in January, the flavor is flat and waning. We were still able to protect that signature crunch experience, but the flavor has waned considerably.”

2. WELCOME WHAT’S NEW

Apple varieties available during the winter are a mix of ‘mainline’ varieties, such as the seven named above, complemented by the many new up-and-coming varieties, says Honeybear Marketing’s Roper. The latter includes “Pazazz, Ambrosia, Jazz, Envy, Juici, Pacific Rose, EverCrisp and many more.”

A key point, says Andy Tudor, vice president of business development for the Rainier Fruit Company in Selah, WA, is that “some varieties are well-served to be in cold storage for a few months for their flavors to mature.” More specifically, the high starch content of some apples will convert to sugars during storage, thus creating a fantastic eating experience.

One example is the Cornell University-affiliated New York State Agricultural Experiment station’s development of the RubyFrost. This sweet tart apple, whose parents are Autumn Crisp and Braeburn, ripens later, stores well and is typically marketed from January to April.

“RubyFrost is an incredibly popular apple with consumers,” says Austin Fowler, owner of Fowler Farms, in Wolcott, NY. “It is like eating a fresh-picked apple right out of the orchard in the winter and spring months. We expect a little more than 200,000 bushels this season.”

Newer varieties, Evercrisp and Sweet Cheeks, are available in limited volumes this year from January to March and January to May, respectively, says Andy Figart, sales manager with Hess Bros. Fruit Co., in Lancaster, PA. “We expect volumes on both of these to grow.”

The Pazazz, a Honeycrisp descendent developed by Honeybear Marketing, is another new variety ideal for January and February sales.

“Pazazz volumes continue to increase as our young orchards mature and our growers plant more each season. In the short order, Pazazz will be a million-case variety, with production in Washington, Midwest, New York, Nova Scotia and the Southern Hemisphere,” says Roper.

Piñata is the big wintertime apple for Stemilt Growers, in Wenatchee, WA. The trademarked variety is a natural mix of Golden Delicious and two European heirloom varieties: Cox’s Orange Pippin and Duchess of Oldenburg. Close to half a million cartons are available this season, according to Roger Pepperl, director of marketing.

“We aggressively promote the message of apples being a healthy choice. Due to seasonal gaps in the availability of other U.S.-grown fresh fruits, winter is a great time to promote U.S. apples.”

— Mike Preacher, Domex Superfresh Growers

There are other newer apple varieties that harvest in the fall, but because of the Piñata’s ability to store well, it is ideal to stock and promote in the winter.

During this time, “some great varieties for us are the Envy, Arkansas Black, Opal, and Honeycrisp. When available, we prefer these grown organically,” says John Savidan, produce director for Bristol Farms, a 12-store chain headquartered in Carson, CA.

The Koru, a New Zealand variety and accidental cross between a Braeburn and Fuji, harvests in November and markets through April.

“Our domestic crop is ‘replenished with imported Koru from New Zealand starting in May, which provides a steady supply for retailers,” says New York Apple Sales’ Allen.

Two of the newest apple varieties just ramping up in commercial production are the SugarBee, with Honeycrisp parentage, and the Cosmic Crisp. Both store well, and consequently as volumes increase, the varieties will be available in the winter.

“We just introduced the SugarBee this season and are looking forward to doing the same with the Cosmic Crisp next season,” says Harp’s Food Stores’ Roberts.

The Cosmic Crisp, a cross between a Honeycrisp and Enterprise, has performed well in taste and production tests, and it is forecast to replace older varieties such as the Red Delicious, according to Rainier’s Tudor. “To date, Washington growers have actively been planting trees, and the first apples are expected in the marketplace in 2019. The big question is yet to be answered based on the ‘all-in’ mentality of this apple. We’ve never seen anything like it. Reports are that nearly seven million trees have been planted and harvest estimates for 2019 could be about 200,000 boxes and ramp up to two million boxes in 2020, six million in 2021, 11 million in 2022, 15 million in 2023 and up. We’ve never seen an apple scaled this fast in production.”

3. CAPITALIZE ON DIETERS

Nearly half (45 percent) of Americans said their resolution for 2018 was to lose weight or get in shape, according to a November 2017-released survey by mobile banking startup, San Francisco-based Varo Money, Inc. Take advantage of this theme to market apples.

“Many consumers try to improve their diets in the New Year,” says Domex’s Preacher. “We aggressively promote the message of apples being a healthy choice. Also, due to seasonal gaps in the availability of other U.S.-grown fresh fruits, winter is a great time to promote U.S. apples. Plus, since Washington State’s organic apple crop is up about 26 percent this season, retailers should definitely promote U.S-grown organic apples during winter. Organic apples have extended into mainstream grocery and all demographics, and they are available longer than ever. If they are not emphasized, sales opportunities are lost.”

Bristol Farms’ Savidan agrees. “This time of year, folks are dieting, so organics play a big role.”

In addition to weight loss, a second potent marketing theme for apples in January is healthy snacks and lunchbox fixings for Back-To-School 2.0, according to Stemilt’s Pepperl. The company ships its Lil Snapper packaged, bulk apple and bulk organic apple programs in easy half-pallet display bins. The Lil Snapper bin is for kids, and the organic and conventional bulk apple bins focus on apples as healthy snacks for adults.

“We also sell a lot of Lil Snapper programs, both organic and conventional, to retailers which focus on ‘intent marketing’ toward families. The big win is selling 3-pound organic programs on Lil Snappers. The organic crowd loves produce, so up-sell them 3 pounds and don’t reduce your sale to a 2-pound bag, which kills sales opportunities,” recommends Pepperl.

4. CREATIVELY MERCHANDISE

An effective way to promote apples during the winter months, or any time of year, is to build large, eye-catching displays that highlight the numerous different varieties available, recommends Sage Fruit’s Sinks. “Each apple variety has a unique flavor profile, which means there’s something for everyone.”

Bristol Farms’ Savidan agrees. “To be successful, you really need to focus on points of difference. This includes varieties, flavor profiles and recipes or pairings. Suggestive sampling and demos are also key to capturing the experience.”

Merchandising around newer managed apple varieties is an exciting process, says Fowler. “We use a traditional mix of merchandising support for retailers like high-graphic display bins, in-store signage and sampling programs. In addition, we have found utilizing Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest to be exciting and dynamic tools to engage consumers to purchase more apples.”

5. PROMOTE BY PRICE AND BEYOND

Price is an effective promotional theme to boost the wintertime apple ring.

Years ago, there was a premium attached to CA apples. Today, according to New York Apple Sales’ Allen, “prices are not effected by CA, but by supply and demand.” That said, “encouraging store promotions, displaying apples front and center and keeping high-quality fruit in the marketplace” are among the best ways to promote.

At Bristol Farms, “We would do more of a spotlight campaign where we would run apples on featured ads and tie in a front door lobby presence. In effect, try to capture customers as soon as they walk in the doors. Two- and three-day hot weekend buys are also a way to promote with less markdown and effect to the bottom line,” says Savidan.

Back-to-School Lil Snapper ads, whole health ads, big variety ads, organic ads for whole health, and Earth Day ads for organic are all ideas Stemilt pushes for retail in the winter and early spring, says Pepperl. The company also sells a 5-pound stand up pouch bag program called Apple Lovers that is a fun way to sell larger volumes of apples to folks who love apples or for romance-oriented holidays such as Valentine’s Day in February.

Apple promotions, however, can slow down in the winter as prime citrus products start to peak with programming and promotions. Apples still command a high majority of space in the retail department, and there are usually special promotions with the newer stronger storage varieties that tend to take the limelight during the latter winter/early spring months. One example of this is Honeybear Marketing’s Pazazz apple campaign that starts this month (January).

“The campaign is themed around celebrating special moments when we eat Pazazz. The Life gets More Flavorful with Pazazz theme encourages consumers to find and share their own Pazazz (figuratively and literally). We will lean on targeted social media platforms including, but not limited to Facebook and Instagram, and utilize playful, punchy graphics and messaging to reach our audience. This campaign is launching across the entire Eastern Seaboard, from Canada down through Florida with our key retail partners. We look forward by supporting them with sales contests, geo-targeted promotions and in-store demos just to name a few,” says Roper.

A second example is Fowler Farms running three online sweepstakes for RubyFrost apples. “These include a sweetheart promotion for February, an in-school marketing program and a Baker’s Little Helper online sweepstakes. Plus, we’ll offer digital coupons,” says Fowler, whose company, like most in the industry, now continues an apple category promotional push well into the year.

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