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    FRESH FOOD: Tree Fruits: Tree-mendous

    This summer selling season, grocers will have plenty of reasons to think big, and the resources to play with.

    Of the many cherished rites of summer, seasonal fresh fruit certainly ranks right up there with backyard barbeques and ice cream. Now retailers have more reasons than ever to amplify displays of domestic stalwarts such as peaches, plums, nectarines, and cherries.

    Consumer desire for peak-season summer fruit is high, especially given publicity surrounding a growing body of research that supports the important role fresh produce plays in promoting good health.

    Some recent historical perspective: From June through August 2004, summer fruits (including berries, grapes, melons, and stone fruit) accounted for an average of 31.2 percent of total department dollar sales, or an average of $10,114 per week per store, according to the Perishables Group FreshFacts, powered by ACNielsen.

    Nationally stone fruit (cherries, peaches, plums, nectarines, and apricots) posted the strongest average category contribution to total produce dollar sales during the summer of 2004, with 10.4 percent of total sales, followed by berries at 7.8 percent, grapes at 6.9 percent, and melons at 6.1 percent.

    When evaluating 2004 summer dollar sales across the regions, FreshFacts found the East leading the country in stone fruit, berry, and grape sales: an average $5,379 per week per store for stone fruit, $4,712 for berries, and $3,061 for grapes.

    Melon sales were highest in the Central region, with an average of $2,666 per week per store. Stone fruit and berry's contributions to total produce dollar sales were highest in the East, at 11.2 percent and 9.8 percent, respectively. Grape and melon category contributions to total sales were highest in the West, at 7.8 percent and 7.7 percent, respectively.

    Looking at stone fruit dollar share during the summer of 2004 (June through August), cherries led the category with 34.7 percent, followed by peaches at 30.4 percent, nectarines at 21.4 percent, plums at 11.6 percent, and apricots at 1.9 percent.

    Beyond the stats, another trend is cropping up. "Organics have taken off this season," notes Suzanne Wolter, director of marketing for Selah, Wash.-based Rainier Fruit Co. "We saw this coming a few years back as more conventional retailers started asking questions about where to position them, which varieties and packaging to use, and so forth."

    In response Rainier Fruit -- whose orchards extend from just south of the Washington/Oregon border to the Washington/Canadian border in central Washington -- began planting new acreage and transitioning existing acreage to organic production.

    "Each season we've re-evaluated our position and projected where we need to be three to five years from now," explains Wolter. "In January we purchased a facility specifically to handle organic apples. It has existing presize and packing lines, in addition to significant storage capacity. We expect to be running a good portion of our organic apples there by the start of the 2006 crop year this fall."

    Another trend that Wolter says bodes well for the summer selling season is increased consumption of cherries, "still one of the only truly seasonal commodities," typically available in the United States from May to August.

    Highly prized Washington cherries have a shorter season, from June through August. "What used to be a four-week item from Washington is now available for 10 weeks," observes Wolter. Rainier Fruit has focused production increases on early- and late-season fruit, through variety and site selection.

    "Packaging developments with cherries over the past few seasons have also rocketed sales," she adds. "Consumer packs have reduced shrink and labor costs at retail significantly." While specialty retailers carrying bulk usually offer a large cherry as a premium item, most retailers now offer cherries in one- or two-pound bags or clamshells.

    Cherries on top

    Rainier cherries -- the bicolored variety with sweet, creamy-colored flesh -- have also taken off, affirms Wolter. "Many consumers are still learning about this variety, and the sales potential is just beginning to get tapped. We believe Rainier cherries should account for at least 10 percent of retail sales."

    After rolling out a new cherry line in 2000, Wolter says Rainier Fruit has upgraded or increased capacity every season to accommodate growing production and increased demand. "We have moved away from the smaller sizes and grow a larger premium product. Retailers and consumers alike have responded positively."

    The fruits of the labors of the California Tree Fruit Agreement (CTFA) -- and its companion PPN Network, a strategic marketing resource for California peach, plum, and nectarine retailers and sales organizations -- portend big opportunities come summer for retailers to build sales and profits. The group has assembled a variety of marketing initiatives and consumer demand-building activity for its peaches, plums, and nectarines.

    Reedley, Calif.-based CTFA has launched two educational POS consumer programs, buoyed by the belief that the more consumers understand their own preferences, the more likely they are to purchase fruit. In consumer research conducted in 2005 to analyze national eating trends in tree fruit, CTFA identified key obstacles to purchasing, among other issues.

    "The research clearly demonstrates that consumers have a variety of preferences when it comes to selecting peaches, plums, and nectarines," says Sheri Mierau, CTFA's v.p. of marketing. A little more than half describe their ideal as flavorful, sweet, juicy, and firm, with a little "give," she notes, but significant numbers of consumers also prefer their fruit firmer or softer, sweeter or tangier, juicier or just moist.

    "We've spent the last year investigating consumer preferences and motivation, and these materials are a reflection of that feedback," adds Mierau. "Now promoting California peaches, plums, and nectarines in a smart and cost-effective way is easier than ever."

    Among the study's highlights was evidence of a need for innovative recipes to build category usage as an additive or ingredient, as well as a need to increase peach, plum, and nectarine use in morning and noontime meals.

    Clever outreach

    CTFA's consumer feedback also played an integral role in developing promotions and POS materials for the organization's clever outreach, which will invite consumers to take stock of their fruit ripeness preferences via a friendly two-pronged "inquisition."

    "The first POS program is designed to be fun and whimsical," says Mierau. It asks consumers to ponder whether they're "A Cruncher, Leaner, or In-betweener?" Aiming for a more thoughtful approach, the second POS package invites consumers to weigh in on "Which Peach is Your Peach?"

    The first program is best suited to mainstream consumers shopping traditional-format stores, with the other is geared toward more sophisticated consumers in higher-end lifestyle formats. Both programs are designed to educate consumers "so they can identify and better understand their preferences and, in turn, make more informed purchase decisions to better meet their preferences," explains Mierau.

    Three cross-promotional tie-ins will also factor heavily into CTFA's mix. The tie-ins also address opportunities identified in the research, says Mierau, and include offers of free music on iTunes, and Movie Bucks from Fandango.

    During the 2005 season's "Music to your Ears" iTunes promotion, retailers participating in the promotion outperformed nonparticipating retailers in both volume and dollar sales of California tree fruit. For this year's promotion, consumers with qualifying purchases will receive either three iTunes downloads or three Fandango Movie Bucks. Purchase recognition and the distribution of a unique code will be delivered through the Catalina Marketing checkout coupon system, which will allow consumers to retrieve their rewards on a proprietary Web site developed by the PPN Network.

    The PPN Network will also continue its promotional partnership with Fresh Express Packaged Salads, to build on the success of a similar relationship last year. A qualifying purchase includes any two of the participating packaged salads, plus three pounds or more of California peaches, plums, and nectarines. In return, those with a qualifying purchase will receive three free song downloads from the iTunes music store. In addition to driving higher volume purchases, the three recipes offered through the promotion will create unique purchases in each category.

    A third promotion, "Moosic & Moovies," crossing fresh tree fruit and dairy, will offer tasty ways to combine fruit and dairy products while also rewarding consumers with exciting, on-trend incentives from iTunes and Fandango.

    The promotion is unique in that the partner will change by retail account, notes Mierau. PPN Network representatives will work with individual accounts to identify opportunities with in-house dairies and private label and branded dairy products. At presstime no partnerships had been finalized.

    A promotion that capitalizes on the nation's growing love affair with wine is also being presented to retailers on an account-by-account basis. The Summer Sangria Splash promotion features a summertime recipe that can be made with white or red wine and fresh, sliced tree fruit.

    A national health and beauty promotion that encourages consumers to eat more California peaches, plums, and nectarines, as well as making other positive lifestyle changes, is on deck for a command performance this year as well.

    "Beginning in June, consumers will be able to access a personalized '90-Day Challenge' calendar at eatcaliforniafruit.com, which allows them to track their daily servings of peaches, plums, and nectarines and receive free e-mails with recipes, exercise, nutrition, and beauty tips," says Mierau.

    Building on the success of last year's inaugural 90-Day Challenge, this year's effort will feature two-time gold medallist and TV personality Summer Sanders.

    Two personalized e-mails will be sent to participants each week during the promotion. Every Monday morning consumers will receive a health, beauty, or nutrition tip. Monday is an excellent time to set personal goals for the week ahead. Then every Thursday morning, consumers will receive a recipe featuring California peaches, plums, or nectarines, intended to stimulate planned purchases during the next few -- traditionally high-volume -- shopping days of the week.

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