FRESH FOODS: Fall Fruit: Falling for it

Harvest season is in full swing, giving grocers a golden opportunity to court customers back indoors to rekindle the home fires with a robust crop of fall favorites in the produce department. Staged against a backdrop of peak-season apples, pears, grapes, squash, eggplant, beans, leeks, and flavorful root vegetables such as sweet potatoes and parsnips, autumn's aura is a feast for the senses that lends itself superbly to creative, colorful displays of fragrant produce and other seasonal staples such as cider, honey, and Indian corn.

the senses that lends itself superbly to creative, colorful displays of fragrant produce and other seasonal staples such as cider, honey, and Indian corn.

Sharon Young, one of a handful of female grocers in Pennsylvania and co-owner of Pittsburgh-based McGinnis Sisters Special Food Stores, is especially fond of fall for a variety of reasons, but most of all because it's an occasion ripe for showcasing the retailer's close ties to local farmers.

"Throughout the summer we've been airing our new TV campaign, 'We go to the farm every day,' and our sales in produce are soaring," relays Young. "Our print ads have also been all about produce and the local farming community, and our sales are up 6 percent storewide. We'll keep the campaign going all fall, and expect to see similarly strong sales."

The McGinnis sisters -- Young, Bonnie Vello, and Noreen Campbell -- were staunch advocates of the "buy local" movement long before it migrated to the mainstream. Today, according to Young, "We're the largest supporter of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) in western Pennsylvania. We're committed to keeping family farms alive, and we're very heavily focused on helping our customers buy local first."

Local pride

Not surprisingly, the growing trend of consumers' wanting to know more about the sources of their food also fueled the sisters' decision to create a homespun media campaign underscoring their own emotional connection to local farmers -- as well as expressing gratitude for their father, Elwood McGinnis, who taught them the importance of supporting local farms and the farming community.

"We love to go to the farm!" proclaims Young in the commercials' opening voiceover. "It's just such a ball to walk down the path, just like we did with my dad when we were little girls," she continues. "We know the farmers that grow our food, and they know what our customers want: the very, very best quality. They bring it to our stores every day, fresh. It just doesn't get any fresher than McGinnis Sisters. You don't have to pay more for quality. We have really great prices because we're able to buy local. We go to the farm every day."

At presstime the McGinnis stores were poised to host a daylong "Celebrate Pennsylvania" promotion, in conjunction with PASA farmers and entrepreneurs, to tout local products via an extensive sampling event.

While local sourcing is a distinct emphasis, the McGinnis sisters' commitment to showcasing high-quality produce also extends to other agriculturally renowned states, among them California. At presstime the operator was featuring crisp California celery, large sweet California red or yellow peppers, broccoli grown in the state, and fresh California leaf lettuce in red, green, and romaine varieties.

California tree fruit and grape growers are in the home stretch of their peak harvest for raisins, wine grapes, and stone fruits. "Because of the late start this year with California peaches, plums, and nectarines, we will have great-quality fruit well into September and October," says Sheri Mierau, v.p. of marketing at the Reedley, Calif.-based California Tree Fruit Agreement, the state marketing order that represents over 2,000 California peach, plum, and nectarine growers.

The cool, wet weather earlier in the year, together with spring rains and hail, didn't severely affect California fruit. However, the conditions delayed earlier varieties by up to two weeks, and some of the later varieties by up to three weeks.

"All through September at all Safeway banner stores (excluding Canada, Washington, and Oregon), our innovative "Tasty Tunes" promotion will be running," says Mierau, noting that shoppers who purchase two Fresh Express salads along with three pounds of California peaches, plums, and nectarines will receive three free song downloads from iTunes.

Just in time for the big apple season, Wenatchee, Wash.-based Stemilt, meanwhile, is bowing a new line of apple and pear cartons reflecting the heart of the company's fruit-growing tradition, as well as tapping into Stemilt's new emphasis on sustainable agriculture.

Roger Pepperl, Stemilt's marketing director, says that two new cartons will be introduced for both standard and Euro-footprint sizes, replacing all cartons used previously for conventional apples and pears. Both celebrate the fruit grower and place him as the focal point of the carton.

"We're really excited about the timing of the Oct. 1 launch of the new cartons, just in time for when our fresh apple crop season kicks in to full variety," says Pepperl, noting the apple category's dramatic evolution into new flavors and varieties in the past decade, "when we went from marketing a three-item category to an eight- to 10-at-a-time one."

Chris Hinrichs, a Wenatchee-area artist, created the carton images, which show a farmer driving his tractor home from the orchard at the end of a long day's work. The setting sun and several fruit trees are pictured in the background. According to Pepperl, Hinrichs drew the scene from an actual photo taken in a Wenatchee Valley orchard.

"It's a very classic look that elevates the grower and the land to the center of attention," notes Pepperl. "Part of Stemilt's mission statement is to generate returns back to the land, and it's our goal to help ensure that both the growers and their orchards are sustainable into the future."

The rising tide of consumer questions about food sources also influenced the decision on carton design, says Pepperl, noting that several studies show that consumers buy more of a product if they feel somehow emotionally connected to it. "Reminding consumers of the origins of Stemilt's apples and pears helps create that emotional tie," he adds.

Classic cartons

The two cartons will each be designated for different grades of Stemilt's fruit, says Pepperl, noting the achievement of a goal that has been long in coming but heretofore delayed "because the cost has always been too expensive to merit the effort." However, recent advancements have reduced costs, allowing Stemilt to take the leap with the new cartons.

According to Pepperl, design types and color combinations have become popular looks commonly seen in upscale food and wine packaging. The two designs "offer more value to retailers for the same product," because they give produce managers an eye-catching container to use for attractive waterfall displays, he notes.

Another advantage is simplification of carton inventory. Pepperl says that at least four box types are currently used just for apples in daily packing at Stemilt. "The new cartons reduce inventory and provide a package exterior that retailers can expect to receive from their Stemilt fruit shipments."

Adds Mike Taylor, v.p. of sales and marketing, "The new box program continues to set Stemilt apart by showing our emphasis on the grower, tied to the production of world-famous Stemilt fruit. It's one more reminder that our growers and our company are striving for a top-quality product while being in harmony with the land that we farm."

Taylor adds that Stemilt might in future also develop tote bags, mesh bag headers, and other packaging to match the cartons.

While conventional apples and pears will move into the new black-and-cream cartons, Stemilt's organic fruit will continue to be packed in the company's special organic box. Pepperl says that the brown-and-green craft-style organic carton, introduced in March, has proved popular with retailers.

Specialty cartons, including Stemilt's vibrantly colored DRC, introduced last spring, and other niche packaging, such as seasonal DRCs, will continue to be used, adds Pepperl; however, all other Stemilt-label boxes for conventional apples and pears will be phased out by Oct. 1.

The company is also gearing up for a plentiful pear-selling season that Pepperl says will encourage retailers to feature "pear-o-ramas ads with multiple varieties at one time. We're really pushing to have four to six items in pear ads rather than one at a time, which makes it really exciting for consumers to fully appreciate the category. We're really looking to promote Bartletts, d'Anjou, reds of either kind, Bosc, and Seckels." The last variety, he adds, "is a very delicious dessert pear that's about the size of a cue ball."

Two new products Stemilt will be working to build demand for this fall are the native England Concord, very popular in Europe, and a new proprietary bicolored pinata apple that will be launched at PMA's Fresh Summit.

To be sure, unique fresh produce items that enable enterprising retailers to make their stores shopper destinations are a key trend for grower/shippers these days. Tristan Kieva, v.p. of marketing for Los Angeles-based Sun Pacific, says her company is only too happy to oblige.

"Retailers have been looking for ways within the fresh produce arena to make their mark, just as they have in other areas of the store," says Kieva, noting that the introduction of Sun Pacific's Cuties brand of Clementines "is in direct response to the changing needs of the consumer and their lifestyle. It's a unique branded offering that many chains have used to differentiate themselves with. By offering a superior piece of fruit that's easy to peel, portable, supersweet, and seedless, consumers have begun to recognize the brand, and it has delivered on its promise."

Further, in light of consumers' strong connection to the Cuties brand -- and the stores that carry it -- Kieva says that Sun Pacific is helping several retailers see double-digit increases within the citrus category. "Many retailers have made a significant commitment to increase the presence of the brand within their produce departments."

Available from November through April, Cuties are likely to move especially well during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, which are optimal promotion periods. "This season, to further extend the Cuties brand with consumers, we have added major consumer marketing elements to the program," notes Kieva. "First and foremost, we updated the packaging design to call attention to the attributes that make Cuties so unique. We're also running an FSI coupon drop to over 18 million households on Dec. 3 to drive trial."

This year Sun Pacific will also pack an added delight in the box: a Cuties activity book "to engage moms and kids to the brand and what it's all about," says Kieva. "We also have new merchandising ideas and options for retailers to make a presence in their stores. Now that we're speaking directly to the consumer, retailers have been excited about our new plans, so we're looking forward to our strongest season yet."

Shelby, Mich.-based Peterson Farms Fresh also launched a new line of bake-at-home Apple Crisp Baking Kits for the produce department, which company officials say is the first retail fruit crisp available for use with fresh-cut peeled and sliced sweet apples. "The Apple Crisp Kit is a unique product that serves to satisfy two growing consumer trends: increased consumption of fruit, combined with ease of preparation," notes Earl Peterson, president of the fresh-cut fruit firm.

"Retailers are looking to give their consumers cooking solutions," says Peterson, adding that the product delivers the best of both worlds for retailers and consumers. "By peeling, coring, and slicing the apples, we've taken virtually all of the work out of the preparation. In less than two minutes, the consumer will have an oven-ready fruit crisp that, after baking, tastes as if hours were spent in the kitchen."

The bake-at-home apple crisp kit features a 27.2-ounce package consisting of one pound of apple slices, eight ounces of crumb topping, and a 3.2-ounce spice packet. The only merchandising requirement is refrigeration, says Peterson, adding that a cherry crisp kit is also available.
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