Who's the customer?
New technology will link apple growers with apple consumers, Yakima, Washington, orchardist Dave Allan believes.
He envisions a future in which consumers will use their cell phones as digital billfolds and the apples they buy at the retail store will have bar codes on them. Together, these systems will provide a tremendous amount of information to the retailer about both the product and its source, and about consumers' buying habits. For example, the retailer will know the identity of the supplier, when the apples were produced, the date they went on display, and whose apples prompt the consumer to come back and buy more.
"The retailer is going to have all that information available to them, so they're going to start to rate us as suppliers as to how effective we are at meeting the needs of their customer," Allan said.
"I think it's going to be one of the biggest advances in the tree fruit industry that we've ever experienced. It makes us responsible for the product, and that's a huge change."
Allan said growers' perception of who their customer is has been changing. At one time, growers felt they were the customers of the warehouses. They'd divide their crop between three packers and tell them that whoever generated the highest returns would get their whole crop the following year.
"There's very little relationship in that situation between the supplier and the consumer," Allan reflected.
For a time, growers considered their customer to be the retailer. They produced exactly what the retailers said they wanted: just Red Delicious, size 100, with 90 percent red color.
"Some people made a lot of money doing that," Allan said. "They had it right that the customer, at that point, was the retailer."
Now, producers are having to consider the consumer as their customer. "What the retailer is saying is, 'We have a customer and that's the consumer, and we're going to make you responsible to that consumer, also,'" Allan said. "This is being driven by technology."