WENATCHEE, Wash. — Retailers and their customers who buy Northwest cherries are increasingly choosing the high-graphic pouch bag, and shippers say they are prepared to meet that demand.

“Talking to retailers, talking to packer-shippers, people are excited about this bag,” said B.J. Thurlby, president of Yakima-based Northwest Cherry Growers.

Introduced about two years ago for smaller chains, the high-graphic bag was then embraced by Wal-Mart and other retailers, industry leaders say.

The standard cherry consumer package for quite a few years was the 2.2-pound catch-weight bag with a slider lock, but Mac Riggan, marketing director for Chelan-based Chelan Fresh, agreed that the premium pouch bag is gaining traction as the top choice of retailers.

Pouch bags may account for about 75% of domestic volume, said Brian Birdsall, general manager of cherry operations for Sage Fruit Co., Yakima.

“The majority of retailers who tested it last year are going 100% this year,” said Bob Mast, president of Columbia Marketing International LLC.

Mast said CMI doesn’t want to run out of pouch bags, since moving customers to the traditional catch-weight bag after they have used the premium pouch bag would be hard to do.

Club stores tend to prefer clamshells, no smaller than 2-pound clamshells for rainiers and 3-pound or 4-pound clamshells for red cherries.

While CMI didn’t ship any 4-pound clamshells during last year’s short crop season, the larger crop will translate to 4-pound clamshell shipments this year, Mast said.

Traditional retailers have used a combination of bags and clamshells, with clamshells traditionally used for rainier cherries.

Now, Mast said, some rainiers are converting from the clamshells to pouched bags for rainiers, he said. Some higher-end markets still merchandise bulk cherries, Mast said.

At $155 per square foot, cherries are the No. 1 dollars per square foot item in July, and the high-graphic pouch bags help draw consumers to cherries, Thurlby said. That’s important, since retail research shows about half supermarket cherry purchases are unplanned, impulse buys.

The premium bags are being tweaked by shippers to vary the location of the handle and are becoming narrower in dimension, he said.

Last year, perhaps 25% of industry volume was in high-graphic pouch bags, but this year the proportion could be up to 60% or more, Thurlby said.

Scott Marboe, marketing director for Oneonta Starr Ranch Growers, said the pouch bag has gained popularity as the norm for sweet red cherries and rainiers.

Clamshells and standard bags will be offered to some accounts, in addition to some bulk shipments.

Domex Superfresh Growers, Yakima, rolled out a high-graphic pouch bag for its dark sweet cherries last year, and this year the marketer will also offer the pouch bag for rainiers, said Loren Queen, marketing and communications manager.

The pouch bag is expected to account for about 75% of the company’s bag business this year, largely replacing the traditional catch-weight poly bag. Next year the pouch bag could account for 100% of bag volume, he said.

“From a marketing standpoint, (the pouch bag) gives us more recognition on the shelf, with bright colors and headers that stand above the fruit to draw attention.”

Retailers who want smaller cherries can receive them in the traditional poly catch-weight bag, but premium quality and larger-size cherries are generally offered in high-graphic pouches, said Suzanne Wolter, marketing director for Selah-based Rainier Fruit Co.

Chris Falk, vice president of Washington Fruit & Produce, Yakima, said the pouch bags are rapidly gaining influence, though a few chains have said they want to stay with the traditional slider bag.

Two common boxes for the pouch bag are the Euro carton holding 12 2.25-pound pouch bags, and the standard carton featuring eight bags of 2.25 pounds.

“The Euro carton is actually a better format to transport a pouch bag,” said Jon Bailey, with The Dalles, Ore.-based Orchard View Farms, whose cherries are marketed by Vancouver, British Columbia-based The Oppenheimer Group.

Bailey said he thinks the industry will migrate to the Euro carton as the carton of choice for cherries in pouch bags, since the pouch bags stands up easier and have more room in the Euro carton.