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FRESH FOOD: The ripe stuff

Picking the perfect pear has never been easy. But one of the industry's leading commodity boards has rustled up a plan to change that by advocating the use of preconditioned ripening technology -- a process that allows retailers to offer softer, ready-to-eat fruits and help consumers eliminate the guesswork when selecting pears.

To be sure, pears have perennially been a hard sell -- literally. To wit: The fruit was recently described by New York Times columnist and cookbook author Mark Bittman as "quite possibly the most challenging [fruit] to find in its ideal state -- probably because it is nearly impossible for the average person to crave a good pear and eat one in the same day." The fruit typically appears on only 16 percent of consumers' shopping lists.

Acutely aware of pears' poor reputation, the Pear Bureau Northwest and the California Pear Advisory Board have worked diligently in recent years to increase consumption by educating consumers on selection, variety, and new uses.

But that's only half the battle, says Kevin Moffit, president and c.e.o. of Portland, Ore.-based Pear Bureau Northwest, whose organization is now laser-focused on getting more retailers to understand -- and ultimately rely on -- preconditioned ripening programs to turn the tide.

Moffit says pre-ripening capabilities represent "a huge breakthrough" for a category with considerable room for growth. Moreover, given the fruit's paltry 3.5 pound per capita annual consumption ratio in the United States, which pales in comparison with the 18 pound per capita demand for apples, Moffit says, "The growing use of ripening programs among retailers is revolutionizing the way pears are sold."

The concept of ready-to-eat pears, he continues, "is truly one of the best ways to get consumers to buy more." Moffit says strides made in the last two to three years in ripening knowledge have enabled the industry to clear two huge hurdles preventing increased consumption: consumers who either want to eat their fruit immediately or within a day, and/or those who don't know how to ripen pears properly or who fail to realize the difference between varieties' ripening characteristics.

Declaring the category "underdeveloped and ready for a makeover," Moffit says consumers "love a sweet, juicy pear, and they'll come back for more, more often, when that confidence is achieved. And ripening is a way for us to deliver that confidence at the retail shelf by allowing retailers to offer pears that will ripen more evenly and faster once customers take them home."

The pre-ripening process begins with packed and palletized pears that are gradually warmed until they reach a temperature in the low 60s Fahrenheit. The pears are then placed in rooms for several hours of exposure to ethylene gas, a natural ripening agent that's also used to ripen bananas. The pears are next moved into cooling rooms, where they remain for two to three days. The process can take as many as five days from start to finish. By the time the fruit warms again on the store shelf, the pears ripen more quickly because the process has already been triggered.

Greater participation

With autumn being peak season for pears from the Northwest, the nation's largest pear-growing region, ripening programs are currently being conducted by both shippers and retailers, notes Moffit. Current estimates are that 35 percent of the yield will be preconditioned, and that should climb to 50 percent before long, he adds.

To encourage the spread of preconditioning, the Pear Bureau has increased its technical information on several fronts, beginning with the addition of outside consultant Dennis Kihlstadius, a renowned preconditioned-produce expert.

Moffit says he's encouraged by participation so far from the retail community, with roughly 20 leading chains now offering preconditioned pears, "but I would still like to see more retailers ripening pears in their own warehouses, or procuring through wholesalers that offer ripening programs for more flexibility."

To be sure, the timing of the Pear Bureau's preconditioning pitch couldn't be better, considering the recent claims that Americans' consumption levels of fresh produce are much too low.

Yet Dave Parker, director of marketing for Dinuba, Calif.-based Fruit Patch Sales, a major tree fruit shipper, cautions that preconditioned fruit is not a substitute for merchandising conventional fruit correctly.

"No question, there's a definite movement on toward preconditioned fruit," he says, "but I still strongly believe that conventional fruit, if handled properly by keeping it out of the cooler at retail, can accomplish the same task."

At the same time, Parker concedes, "Preconditioning serves the retailer and the consumer so well, because it gives you a degree of immunity from the internal breakdown problem that's built into the fruit. And while it's not bulletproof, it does provide a grace period."

A member of the Produce for Better Health Foundation's board of directors, Parker says the onus is squarely on the retailer "to catch the consumer's attention and tell them they're about to buy ripened fruit, and how and why it's different, while also letting them know the benefits and proper handling."

While the Pear Bureau's Moffit agrees, he says word choice is vital, in view of results of past test market studies that found "when signage mentioned something like 'This fruit was preconditioned for quick and even ripening,' it actually spooked consumers into asking, 'Preconditioned with what?'"

To avoid such reactions, Parker says, "There's a language retailers need to use to convey that this fruit is special and dependable. And when they do, the accolades come rolling in."

One such chain that speaks the language fluently is Giant Food Stores, Inc., the Carlisle, Pa.-based Ahold subsidiary that runs 99 Giants, 161 Tops, 18 Martin's, and 204 c-stores.

The chain launched a new Orchard Perfect line of premium-ripened fruit at the start of this past summer's selling season. Company spokesman Denny Hopkins says the program "has enjoyed great success. We've been very pleased with how well the program was embraced by customers practically immediately."

According to Jeff Beaulieu, Giant's v.p. of produce and floral, the chain began by communicating details about a new tree fruit ripening process that uses special temperature management techniques to ensure proper ripeness is achieved and that all summer fruit is immediately ready for consumption on arrival to stores.

By telling customers "they would no longer have to ripen peaches, plums, and nectarines in a paper bag," Beaulieu says Giant relayed how its Orchard Perfect program offers fruit "at its sweetest and juiciest stage to enjoy." (The program does not include homegrown fruit purchased from Pennsylvania farmers during the local growing season.)

Giant promoted the program extensively throughout the summer, which at presstime was just winding down. Regarding the risk/reward proposition Giant weighed while deciding to launch the program, Hopkins notes, "A lot of the success we had was with the outstanding execution efforts from our produce associates. [Execution] is crucial for a program like this, not only at store level, but also at our distribution center. It requires a real team effort from the moment product is received, and onward to store level."

Marking ripeness in melons

Aside from pears, cantaloupes are also renowned for giving consumers fits when it comes to determining ripeness. Enter Ladera Ranch, Calif.-based Dulcinea Farms, a fully integrated producer of ultrapremium-quality produce, which delivered an answer with its full-flavored, extra-sweet Tuscan-style brand grown from special Italian hybrid seeds.

Like its highly successful sister PureHeart individual watermelon, the Dulcinea cantaloupe combines more vivid coloration and sweetness than its conventional counterpart, notes Kevin Migdal, Dulcinea's president and c.e.o.

A defining feature of Dulcinea's loupes is a grooved exterior webbing that conveniently changes color from dark green to golden-cream as the fruit ripens, "which allows consumers to know when the fruit is optimal for their specific tastes," explains Migdal.

Cantaloupes with green-colored grooves indicate a mild flavor and a firm texture, similar to regular cantaloupes, while those with golden-cream grooves that match the color of the melon's webbing have the most intense flavor, and soft, juicy fruit inside, he says.

Pleasanton, Calif.-based Safeway was the exclusive retailer for the melons during the initial rollout, carrying the variety in its Northern and Southern California and Phoenix stores. The melons weigh between three and six pounds, and retail for approximately $2.99 each.

Migdal praised Safeway for the support the chain gave the branded melons, calling it a key element of the grocer's perishables departments' destination items.

"Safeway has done its own consumer testing, and all of the in-store work, on its own," says Migdal. The chain communicates the variety's various selling points to shoppers, including that fact that its exterior color changes to indicate ripeness, and that the Dulcineas offer 21 percent more edible fruit, due to the fact that they're field-grown and vine-ripened from specially bred seeds that yield less rind and a smaller seed cavity.

Remarking how the product has "been oversold since the day we starting shipping it," Migdal says Dulcinea is "ramping up to begin what I consider to be traditional rollout in the spring. We are looking to take production up roughly five times, and by April of next year you should start seeing the first big influx in the marketplace."

Maxing out avocados

No discussion of ripened produce programs would be complete without mentioning the California Avocado Commission (CAC), whose hallmark RipeMax program remains the gold standard of ready-ripe fruit.

Jan DeLyser, v.p. of marketing for the Irvine, Calif.-based organization, says the staying power of its "guacamole-ready" strategy, when combined with the group's best-practice research, "gives retailers a proven program to establish appropriate inventory standards that can reduce shrink and maximize sales." Even more important, she says, "RipeMax provides consumers with a pleasant eating experience that makes them want to come back for more."

Having conducted thousands of in-store audits with some 40 retailers throughout the United States to monitor ripe, breaking, firm, and overripe avocados, DeLyser says the prime objective of the RipeMax program is to educate retail personnel on the value of offering customers the option of ripe fruit that's ready to consume, as well as unripe fruit for later consumption.

Citing research that confirms ripe avocados can outsell unripe fruit in mature markets, DeLyser says an established retailer with a solid avocado program can easily double its sales with a commitment to a ripe program. Sales performance can be even stronger in developing markets, she adds. "When retailers commit and provide consumers with easy-to-understand information that this avocado is ripe and ready to eat tonight, they can increase sales up to four times."

It all comes down to "a matter of communicating," says DeLyser. Because ripe fruit has long been equated with imminent shrink, "it's certainly understandable that there could be misperceptions among retailers who haven't had the personal experience with a pre-ripened program. But that's not the case at all. It's a dedicated program that builds consumer confidence that translates into valuable information for the consumer, and increased sales for retailers."

The CAC has been selected by the Hass Avocado Board to implement its 2004 marketing program to promote the entire Hass avocado volume 52 weeks a year, thus enabling retailers to avoid the start-stop and seasonal conflicts that typically occur as each producer enters and exits the market.

"The unification of marketing dollars under the HAB umbrella provides avocado promotional opportunities 365 days a year," says DeLyser, adding that retailers can build year-round promotions and conduct fully integrated category management programs.

Sounds like an opportunity ripe for the taking.
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