With weather-delayed harvests in many areas and higher retail prices, the 2011-12 marketing year is starting off on the same wrong foot as the disasterous 2008-09 season did.

"When we lose sales because of a late start in September or October, it's really hard to catch up," says Steve Lutz, executive vice president of the Chicago-based Perishables Group.

"The 2008 crop was substantially larger than the 2007 crop. We were behind the entire year in sales at retail until March. The average retail price when we started the season was 30 percent higher than in 2007. That price point didn't come down until January. Consumers opted for other items."

He made his comments during a presentation at the U.S. Apple Association's recent marketing conference in Chicago.

The 2008 crop was 229.3 million 42-pound bushels, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The USDA puts the 2011 crop at 226.5 million bushels, according to its first estimate of the season issued Aug. 11.

USApple issued its estimate of 227.5 million bushels, based on a poll of growers, packers and processors at its annual marketing conference, Aug. 19.

On top of higher retail prices this season, consumers also are faced with higher gas prices compared with 2008. Back then, gas accounted for 14 percent to 15 percent of household expenditures. Today it accounts for 20 percent to 22 percent, Lutz says.

"That comes right out of food purchases, and we are seeing that again in 2011 as gas prices started to move up."

At the same time during 2010-11, retailers promoted apples less often, and when they did put them on sale, they didn't reduce the price as much as they had in the past.

"There's a fairly tight relationship between the prices consumers are asked to pay and what they buy at the retail store," Lutz says.

Add to that more competing items, both from within the apple category and from other fruit.

Ten years ago, many of the more specialty apple varieties were only in stores four of five months of the year. Now stores have an average of 30 unique apple items throughout the year.

But when consumers buy apples, 92 percent of them buy only one variety. That compares with berries, where 16 percent of consumers buy two items at a time. And berries typically only have four items on the shelf.

"They're double what we're getting with 30," Lutz says. "We have to do better getting multiple varieties in the baskets. Why don't we have variety packs, like stop light variety packs, to encourage trialing?"

The packs would include a red-, a yellow- and a green-skinned variety.