(Dec. 8) A stroll down the fresh-cut aisle already reveals products from broccoli to watermelon, but two major suppliers are poised to launch yet another weapon for your fresh-cut arsenal.
Del Monte Fresh Produce NA Inc., Coral Gables, Fla., and Sunkist Growers Inc., Sherman Oaks, Calif., are working on individual fresh-cut citrus products, and neither knows how soon research and development efforts will bear fruit.
Del Monte appears to be the front-runner. The company test-marketed some fresh-cut items in the Southeast early this year and planned to resume testing this fall as Florida citrus becomes available.
While some bugs remain to be worked out, John Loughridge, vice president of marketing, does not rule out the possibility that Del Monte will launch additional fresh-cut citrus products this season for wider distribution.
At Sunkist, Robert Verloop, vice president of marketing and promotion, says the company is conducting research and has done some product testing.
“We continue to go through the process to make sure the product meets our standards and our needs — both for Sunkist and for our retailers, foodservice operators and consumers,” he says.
There’s little doubt that there’s a place for fresh-cut citrus on produce department shelves.
“Based on research with consumers, retailers and foodservice operators, there is definite interest in a high-quality, premium product that is fresh-cut,” Verloop says.
Judging from fresh-cut’s explosive growth in the past 10 years, Eric Boomhower, public affairs manager for the Florida Department of Citrus in Lakeland, calls the category “a huge area of opportunity.”
“Everything points to convenience,” he says, citing the success of cored and cut pineapples and cut melons, not to mention the phenomenal success of fresh-cut salad mixes.
For consumers, the biggest barrier to whole citrus is the peel, which explains why citrus is not easily eaten as a snack.
The Florida Department of Citrus has come up with its own peeling technology and announced a licensing agreement with Del Monte, which is adapting the technology to meet the needs of commercial production.
But there are other challenges.
Loughridge doesn’t think consumers are inclined to buy containers of plain, sectioned oranges or grapefruit. That’s why the company also has tested combinations of ruby red grapefruit, white grapefruit and valencia oranges. Cottage cheese, dips or citrus salads could be in the future.
Various packaging methods will be tried, too. Last season, Del Monte tested 5-, 9- and 16-ounce retail packs.
Sunkist isn’t as specific about what it has in the works. Verloop says products will be examined based on technology, consumer demand and marketability.
Retailers seem cautiously optimistic about the potential of fresh-cut citrus.
Mike Maguire, director of produce operations for Market Basket Supermarkets Inc., a chain of 58 stores based in Tewksbury, Mass., says he wouldn’t be surprised to see fresh-cut citrus parallel the success of fresh-cut salads and melons.
“As the technology improves and they find better, safer ways to pack merchandise, I expect it to be a viable item,” he says.
The key is profitability. Consumers must take the product home, try it, be happy with it two or three days later and then come back for more to make the product successful.
“I’m not at the point where we are looking to jump into (fresh-cut citrus), but our eyes are always open,” he says.
Flavor is the key factor that David Corsi, vice president of produce and floral operations for the 65-store Wegman’s Food Markets Inc., Rochester, N.Y., would take into account, followed by cost.
“Customers are willing to pay for the convenience, but there is a threshold,” he says.
Wegman’s already offers a mixed fruit product, and offering value-added fresh citrus would be a way to expand the line. Corsi would like to see fresh-cut versions of all varieties of navel oranges, grapefruit and tangerines.
Not everyone is sold on fresh-cut citrus yet.
“It doesn’t sound to me like it would be something the customer is looking for,” says Mike O’Brien, vice president of produce for the 100-store Schnuck Markets Inc., St. Louis.
But jarred fruit performs well in Schnuck’s produce departments, he says, so he would be willing to give fresh-cut citrus a try. Flavor, shelf life and pricing are key factors he would consider before stocking it.
Fresh-cut might be a good way to boost consumption of citrus, too, especially grapefruit, says Edith Garrett, president of the International Fresh-cut Produce Association, Alexandria, Va. Grapefruit sales, especially among younger consumers, remain stagnant.
“It needs to be more convenient in order to get more out there on the breakfast plate and dinner plate,” she says.
And although some fresh-cut products can be prepared in-store, citrus is not one of them.
Once suppliers come up with viable fresh-cut products, the work will be only half done. They — along with their retail partners —- will have to introduce the products to consumers and persuade them to pay what may be a premium price for a new version of a familiar product.
Sunkist’s testing will include “a thorough analysis of market potential,” Verloop says.
After product introductions, Del Monte plans to put together a full-blown program with retailers that likely will include in-store demos, advertising and merchandisers.
If fresh-cut citrus follows the same pattern as other fresh-cut products, it will start off slow and could use some help from coupons and in-store sampling to build momentum, Garrett says. There is evidence that consumers need to try a product and have a good experience with it at least three times before they’re sold on it, she says.
Wegman’s Corsi says he’d like to see suppliers provide enough product so retailers could sample it and educate customers.
“Demand is only as good as the flavor you offer and your execution strategy,” he says. “If you educate customers and the product tastes great, then it’s a winning combination.”
If suppliers offer an introductory retail price lower than the everyday price, it will motivate customers to try these items, he says, adding that quality demos will be needed to ensure repeat purchases.
Suppliers seem confident that fresh-cut citrus will make the next big bang on produce shelves, and most retailers seem willing to at least give it a test run. Whether the result will be a sales explosion remains to be seen.
As Schnuck’s O’Brien says, “The customer will make that choice.”