The number of apple varieties on offer to retail buyers continues to grow each year, but produce departments aren’t getting any bigger.
That forces risk taking and creative marketing by suppliers.
“Within the entire produce department in a retail store, they’ve greatly expanded the number of (stock-keeping units), and apples have done well to hold the space they have,” said Keith Horder, director of business development at L&M Cos., Union Gap, Wash.
“That will influence the future because now I see a lot of retailers who can’t handle the varieties we have in Washington and the East.
“Newer club varieties are being accepted less now than in the past because of the limited space. At some point certain varieties will just lose it.”
If so, the apple market is a kind of high-stakes game of musical chairs. Who will have a seat when the song stops?
Pink Lady preference
Alan Taylor, marketing director at Pink Lady America LLC, Wenatchee, Wash., says his brand’s seat is safe.
“A number of apples have come up against Pink Lady and so far Honeycrisp has been the only competition pricewise,” Taylor said. “It doesn’t stay on the market for long, then the high-priced market is us. Look at the flavor profile. This is a sweet-tart apple. How many of those do you really need? I don’t see anything coming down the pike that’s going to change that.”
From a retail point of view, the choice for apples is bigger than just club versus traditional varieties.
“We have seen the biggest growth in the ready-to-eat Crunch Pak variety,” said Maria Brous, communications director at Publix Super Markets Inc., Lakeland, Fla. “Honeycrisp are also doing well.”
“Some of the choices do have the same taste-flavor profile,” Brous said of the newer varieties.
On the whole though, more options have brought welcome diversity, she said.
Honeycrisp does continue to stand out among the varieties.
“A lot of retailers are reporting that Honeycrisp is 20% of sales early in the season,” Bob Mast, vice president of marketing at Wenatchee, Wash.-based Columbia Marketing International Corp., said in December.
Volume on Honeycrisp will only grow over time, Mast said.
“It’s a highly planted variety in the past couple years and more tonnage is coming on,” he said. “Consumers are becoming more aware of it and are willing to spend their hard-earned money. Retailers who initially had a conservative approached toward mid- to high-$2 prices have increased their display space.”
“Honeycrisp definitely maintains its edge over all apples,” Horder said. “Every consumer, buyer and retailer I talk to loves that apple and wishes it could be a year-round apple. Unfortunately it’s the nature of the beast that it’s a short season.”
“Honeycrisp is starting to wind down in January and February,” Mast said.
Rainier Fruit Co. will stretch availability of Honeycrisp into April, a month longer than last year, unless demand picks up pace, said Suzanne Wolter, marketing director for the Selah, Wash.-based grower-shipper.
Its popularity, though, has created a favorable tailwind for other recent varieties. Perhaps the music will play on for a good long while before anyone sits down. But timing is important.
“You’ll probably see an uptick in some of the other varieties from the Honeycrisp consumer,” Mast said. “That’s why we’re releasing Kiku in January and Kanzi in February. There’s only so much shelf space for premium apples.”
F.o.b. prices on Honeycrisp can range from $42-45 a box in the fall to $65 or $70 toward the end of the season, Mast said. “Your managed varieties are in the $50s at the high end and $35 to $38 at the low end,” he said.
Loren Queen, marketing and communications manager for Domex Superfresh Growers, Yakima, Wash., said what’s good for Honeycrisp can be good for other apples.
“It has really helped in getting consumers outside their comfort zone and trying these new varieties,” Queen said. “They wonder what else they’ve been missing as they eat their red delicious, granny smith and golden delicious.
“We’ve seen an uptick. You’ve got growers excited, getting the returns to the land that a new apple can bring, and you’ve got consumers excited about the experience they’ve had and wanting to try more. You’ve got to be sure the apples on display are right for your market and rotated. And really encourage experimentation. That’s the key to growing the category.”
David Nelley, apple and pear category director at Vancouver-based The Oppenheimer Group, said premium apples are enjoying more frequent promotions, including his company’s Jazz and Pacific Rose.
“We have noticed that retail prices on apples have increased in the last 12 months,” Nelley said. “Shoppers see a great deal of value in an apple which has cost $2.49 or $2.99 in the past marked at $1.99.”
“Demos also must be done to get the consumers to try a new variety,” said Chuck Sinks, president of sales and marketing at Sage Fruit Co. LLC, Yakima, Wash. “Once the customer tries the new variety you will see the jump in sales.”
Sonya is one variety Sage Fruit is promoting.