( File photo )

Northwest fruit marketers will give retailers plenty of promotion opportunities from mid-June to mid-August.

The 2018 Northwest cherry crop totaled about 25.6 million 20-pound boxes, and industry leaders said the 2019 crop could be very close to that volume.

A crop of 20 million boxes or more could be on the way, said B.J Thurlby, president of Yakima, Wash.-based Northwest Cherry Growers. Weather in early May was ideal for crop development, he said.

Washington cherry harvest will begin about June 10-12, and will follow what is expected to be a full crop of California cherries that have been estimated at 10 million to 12 million 18-pound boxes.

Last year, Thurlby said Northwest cherry growers shipped just under 1 million boxes of organic cherries, and he said organic output could be similar this year.
That level of production seems to cover organic demand, but Thurlby said growers could grow more organic fruit if demand warranted.

Retail jackpot

With the potential for more than 30 million boxes of cherries between California and the Northwest, Thurlby said retailers will have an opportunity to “cash in” on promotion opportunities.

“If I am a retailer, I’m putting cherries in my ads from the middle of June all the way into the middle of August,” he said.

The pouch bag continues to be the most popular way to merchandise cherries and may account 75% to 80% of domestic volume, Thurlby said, with the balance mostly accounted for by clamshell packs. The five-kilo loose fill pack is popular for export markets, which can claim about one-third of the Northwest cherry crop. 

The 2019 crop represents the return of late-season retail sales opportunity, said James Michael, vice president of marketing for North America for Northwest Cherry Growers.

“Our August sales potential has varied between 20,000 and 5 million boxes over the past few years,” he said. 

“Retailers who pushed a strong late season promotion when our cherries were available saw a difference of $1.2 million in sales for a 100-store chain.”

While it may be hard to resist the fall/back-to-school switch, Michael said the opportunity for a retailer to get one more bite at summer sales is real for those promoting Northwest cherries.

Michael said climate conditions have favored the development of a flavorful crop, which is likely to spur repeat sales.

“Getting a high quality cherry into (consumer) hands earlier in the season will have a greater chance of boosting everyone’s sales throughout the season,” Michael said, noting that 75% of consumers say they eat their bag of fresh cherries within three days of purchase and 90% consume it in four days.

Northwest Cherry Growers said the health message of cherries is powerful.

“We’re taking our list of benefits farther and wider this year,” Michael said, noting that the phrase “natural anti-inflammatory” was used in the 2013 season. 

Now, surveys indicate the attribute is the second most commonly known health fact about cherries.

Michael said retailers should emphasize the seasonality of Northwest cherries.

“A countdown clock-type reminder is a great way of letting consumers know that the opportunity is dwindling to buy cherries and freeze/dry/save them for later,” he said. 

“This type of communication has surpassed all other messaging and promotions when studied in the late season, and when combined, showed significant returns.”

Coming off record volume last year, rainier variety cherries are expanding their consumer appeal.

“Many customers write to us and say they’ve never looked back once they started buying rainiers, but it took some incidental exposure for them to become aware of the variety,” he said.

He said retailers that see the biggest rainier sales typically invest in store-level education and/or point-of-sale materials to help consumers understand what makes the variety unique.

With an estimated 53% of cherry sales impulse purchases, multiple cherry displays in supermarkets are important to maximize retail sales, Thurlby said.