( Photos courtesy New York Apple Growers )

Along the Eastern Seaboard, apples are playing a game that’s more competitive than ever.

In 2019, crisp, sweet, easy-eating gala took the long-held gold medal of most-purchased apple variety from red delicious, long the favorite of baby boomers.

As more club varieties muscle their way in, the lengthening list of contenders vying for shoppers’ attention is now battling quicker shopping trips and more online shopping.

“When you’re shopping online versus the store, there’s less opportunity for impulse buying, to see a beautiful new display of a new variety that you haven’t tried yet but may be enticed to get,” said Chris Sandwick, director of marketing for Hess Bros. Fruit Co., Lancaster, Pa.

The past several years, Hess growers have reduced acreage of red delicious, empire, mcintosh and other legacy varieties.

“Now we’re seeing the results of those investments of taking out the old and putting in the new. That’s by design. That isn’t where the consumer palate lives right now,” Sandwick said.

In New York alone, the New York Apple Association describes the eating characteristics of the 30 most popular varieties on its website, applesfromny.com.

Most United Apple Sales growers replant 4% to 7% of their acreage every year, trying the new varieties and phasing out the old, more labor intensive varieties, said Brett Baker, vice president of the Lyndonville, N.Y.-based company.

This year wasn’t any different — except for the changes in demand attributed to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Managed varieties (have) really struggled during COVID,” Baker said. 

“Less income in the household and buying online or on an app, how do you ‘impulse’ someone into trying a new variety? We weren’t getting the eyeballs into the produce department.”

Shoppers standing in line to go inside the store felt the time pressure once inside, he said.

Growers or retailers also weren’t able to do any sampling or demonstrations to tempt shoppers.

“Club varieties really took it hard. We weren’t able to market them properly,” Baker said.

Demand has shifted toward core, entry-level staples. 

For apples, that means the familiar, lower-priced varieties.

Still, growers are planting newer varieties, the lower-priced gala, as well as higher-end managed varieties. It takes a few years for the plants to bear fruit for commercial use anyway.

“In recent years, we’ve been advising our growers to plant newer, redder Honeycrisp, gala, including early harvest strains, and Pink Lady,” said Brenda Briggs, vice president of sales and marketing at Rice Fruit Co., Gardners, Pa.

Rice has also seen a resurgence of granny smith for its own particular mix of customers. 


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