(March 20, 11:16 a.m., PACKER WEB EXCLUSIVE) Wenatchee, Wash.-based Stemilt Growers Inc. caused a produce industry stir when it unveiled its FruitTracker category management software program in 2003. As the program enters its sixth year, the Washington grower-shipper has augmented the software tool with consumer surveys and taste tests.

“More than 1,700 consumers responded to our surveys,” said Roger Pepperl, Stemilt’s director of marketing, “and we’re going to do more of that.”

FruitTracker uses store data scans to provide retailers with sales and marketing analyses of apple, pear and cherry movement. The data are reduced to presentations to retail chains, Pepperl said, and reveal how the chains benchmarked against the nation.

One of the most powerful segments of FruitTracker is its ability to hone in on data from individual stores, Pepperl said.

“Where we really win is when we can duplicate successes,” he said.

With its database, FruitTracker permits a produce manager to view his store’s performance in the same time period compared to past years.

Stemilt has streamlined FruitTracker in order to provide retailers with more concise reports. The key findings of the software program can now be reduced to just a few pages, Pepperl said. He gives much of the credit for the improved service to Travis Chin, who joined Stemilt two years ago.

“Travis really understands numbers,” Pepperl said. “He brought a whole new revelation by being able to decipher the data and cross reference numbers.”

Among the advantages Chin has brought to the program, Pepperl said, is his ability to get information into retailers’ hands quickly. He can provide them with monthly or even twice-monthly comprehensive reports based on the data scans. The reports can be eye-opening.

“For instance, we look at shelf turn when we do category management,” Pepperl said. “So many people don’t realize how poor their turns are on some items and how that affects the crispness and freshness of those items.”

Before joining Stemilt, Chin, who has a degree in statistics, worked for six years for Market Trends, a Seattle-based market research company.

FruitTracker also has revealed revenue sources some retailers overlook, Pepperl said.

“Some of the opportunities on pears are fantastic,” he said. “With the wine, cheese and foodie craze, there’s also an opportunity not just for children but also for adults who want to mix a pear with some of the trendy items.”

Smaller pears are always a value if a chain is looking for a value item in a tote bag, for instance, he said.

Stemilt is now applying the software and surveys to other commodities. Stemilt grows about 40% of the state’s stone fruit, about 1.4 million cartons annually, Pepperl said. The data show there are real possibilities for Washington-grown stone fruit, he said.

“The best learning is when the chain hits a home run,” Pepperl said.