CHICAGO — Sales of fresh sliced apples increased 33% in the past five years — and that number doesn’t even include sales reports from Wal-Mart, Costco and other retail giants.

Sliced apple sales approach $200 million annuallyThat was among the many eye-opening statistics Tony Freytag, national marketing director for Cashmere, Wash.-based Crunch Pak, shared with attendees of the Vienna, Va.-based U.S. Apple Association’s annual marketing conference Aug. 19.

Freytag opened his speech on the state of the sliced-apple industry with an explanation of his first PowerPoint slide, a constantly rising number that looked like a U.S. national debt ticker.

That’s not the debt, Freytag assured attendees. It was the amount of sliced apples Crunch Pak has produced — 6 billion-plus and counting.

Freytag quickly made it clear, however, that not just his company is thriving. The most recent coup for the industry as a whole, he said, was McDonald’s decision to put apple slices in all of its kids meals.

“We’re very happy, and we don’t even produce for McDonald’s,” he said. “A rising tide floats all boats.”

Apple slices in all Happy Meals means increased consumer awareness, and that will translate into bigger sales at retail and other foodservice channels, Freytag said.

The sliced-apple category tallied about $122 million in sales last year, according to Nielsen data cited by Freytag. Add Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club, Costco and other retailers that don’t share their numbers with Nielsen, Freytag said, and the number is closer to $200 million.

The average retailer now carries 7.8 sliced-apple stock-keeping units, up from 3.2 SKUs just a few years ago, Freytag said. As a result, the category is now a “real department” of its own within the produce department.

Looking ahead, Freytag advised sliced-apple marketers to directly engage consumers and to emulate the packaged-good purveyors that are the category’s real competition.

“We have to be innovative, and the way to do that is to look just like center-of-the-store products,” he said.