A group of California grower-shippers has launched a money-back guarantee of their soft fruit.
It's one thing to talk about fruit quality. But how many growers and shippers are willing to buy back their fruit if it fails to deliver great taste? A new taste-guarantee concept developed for a group of California soft fruit growers and shippers will be part of the group's preconditioned fruit program this season.
The taste guarantee promises to reimburse the consumer if they are less than satisfied with their purchase of Ripe 'n Ready fruit, said Blair Richardson, head of FreshSense, the marketing arm for four California tree fruit and table grape growers and shippers that are part of the Ripe 'n Ready program. "It's easy to make promises about great quality, but generally speaking, most shippers put the fruit on the truck and then forget about it."
The taste guarantee is about standing up behind a promise, he said. "The growers and shippers that are part of FreshSense and the Ripe 'n Ready program decided it was time to stand up behind their promises or stop making them."
As part of the Ripe 'n Ready preconditioning program, four soft fruit grower-shippersGeorge Brothers, SunWest Fruit Company, Fowler Packing Company, and Ballantine Producefollow a quality-management program based on University of California research that has been refined into protocols dictating varietal selection, maturity specifications at harvest, and postharvest temperature and humidity management. The grower-shippers are located in the heart of California's soft fruit basket, in the Fresno-Reedley area. FreshSense is located in Parlier, California.
Preconditioned fruit programs for peaches, plums, and nectarines began in California in the mid-1990s as a way to improve the consistency of flavor and quality in the marketplace. The concept has grown rapidly within California's stone fruit industry, Richardson said, noting that nearly all major shippers now are involved in some sort of preconditioned program. Many claims are made, but not all of the fruit sold as preconditioned is truly preconditioned, he said.
Richardson, former president of the California Tree Fruit Agreement, the federal marketing order for peaches and nectarines, explains that while some shippers have labeled California stone fruit as "tree ripened," there are no standards to dictate what that label means. "The same thing could happen with these preconditioned programs. There are a lot of good programs, but some are really no different than regular tree fruit programs.
"If we're serious about quality and serious about providing consistency, week after week, then there's no better way than to make a money-back guarantee," he said.
One of the biggest barriers to increased consumption of peaches, plums, and nectarines has been lack of consumer confidence in flavor and quality, he said. Richardson believes that their taste guarantee deals head-on with the lack of consumer confidence with soft fruit and demonstrates the strength of the Ripe 'n Ready program that's in place.
Moreover, when a consumer calls the toll-free number provided as part of their point-of-sale material, it will be Richardson answering the call. He carries a special cell phone for that purpose only. "If that phone rings when I'm in a meeting, I will interrupt things to take that call," he said. The shopper can contact Richardson by phone, mail, or through their Web site.
Only the best
Not all fruit meet the qualifications for the preconditioned program. The taste guarantee program starts in the field with selection of only certain varieties from about 200 available that meet the Ripe 'n Ready flavor and consistency goals. A quality control coordinator works with the four shippers to oversee quality aspects and manage inventory.
Before harvest, fruit are sampled for sugar and firmness. Pressure and Brix readings are taken again before and after fruit are packed and during preconditioning in computer-monitored ripening rooms, Richardson explained. "Fruit are inspected and sampled five different times during the process. Once we establish that the sugars are right, and predetermined flesh pressures are right, then fruit are allowed to complete the program. Fruit that don't meet the quality standards of the preconditioned program are not part of the Ripe 'n Ready program and are sold under another label."
Richardson noted that the taste guarantee is only offered to their retail partners who are fully committed to the Ripe 'n Ready program. FreshSense provides in-store training programs for produce managers, on-line support, and promotional materials for their partner retailers. He acknowledges that the guarantee will take significant effort by retailers to ensure that they are handling and storing fruit properly.
"If I see a jump in requests for consumer reimbursement coming from the same store or a single grocery chain, then we'll know that there's a breakdown somewhere in the distribution system," he said.
Packing-line sorting technology does not yet allow optical sensing of the internal fruit quality aspects that they are interested in, but he said FreshSense members will be among the first to implement such technology when it becomes available.
Fruit for the preconditioned program are not sold from inventory, but are picked and packed based on demand projections coordinated with the retail partners, Richardson said. "With these premium programs, we need about one week's notice to precondition the fruit and move it through the system."
FreshSense expects to sell 1.6 to 2 million packages of Ripe 'n Ready fruit for 2008, a slightly smaller volume than in the past. "We want to make sure that it is truly premium fruit," Richardson said. The projected volume will represent about 10 to 15 percent of the total volume of fruit produced by the four participating grower-shippers.
For more information, visit www.ripenready.com.