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The most expensive piece of real estate in the world is the retail space at grocery stores. Competition for that space is huge, says the president of a global produce distributor.

"The world is not just looking for another apple, cherry, or peach," said Grant Hunt, president of the Grant J. Hunt Company, an international distributor of fresh produce based in Oakland, ­California. "I will tell you that the world is looking for a better apple, a better cherry, and a better peach."

But who defines better? asks Hunt. And who defines what it means to taste better? It may be better because it has a darker color, matures earlier or later, ships greater distances, or stores longer, Hunt said during the annual meeting of the International Fruit Tree Association held in Visalia, California. It may taste better to some ethnic groups or geographic groups.

It’s difficult to define what it means to be better, he said. "Thus, defining your deliverable metric should be preeminent in your thinking out in the orchard."

He advises growers who are considering investing in a new variety to start by determining what the ultimate consumer experience will be and then plant the variety that will meet that desire. "Don’t start with something you think might work because it meets your specific growing needs, and then you follow up by challenging your marketer to drive consumer desire."

Way too many growers ignore the most fundamental question of what will light the fire of the shopper and lead to repeat purchases, he said.

Social responsibility

One of the latest trends at the retail level is corporate social responsibility. Components of corporate social responsibility are beginning to show up at the retail level in the form of food-safety standards, food miles, producer sustainability, carbon footprints, and consumer connection. Hunt encourages growers to watch the movement in Europe to see where the trend is leading. Though much of it is being driven by European retailers, it is gaining traction very rapidly in North America, with several activist groups behind the scenes, he warned.

"The danger for you, as leading-edge developers of new products, is that you have to decide now how your products fit in this whole concept that is morphing daily," he said.

Smart marketers will be the ones that match their products to the desires of what their customers want, he said. Producers adopting sustainable practices will be rewarded if the shopper believes their product will make them healthier, is better for the planet, and tastes better, he added.

Questions

A new variety should be thought of the same as new product development, Hunt noted, suggesting that growers ask themselves the following questions when considering planting a new variety:

What niche am I filling? Is the variety unique or have substantial ­market value?

Who will market your product? Does the marketer have the passion to spend the time needed for a new product?

What is the time frame for your product to be deliverable for market development and rollout? Is planting and production timed to coincide with market development?

What is your marketing budget? Product launch must include trade ads, publicity, in-store demonstrations, and zippy packaging, and must cut through the clutter of 650 other produce items.

Do you need a test market or to conduct market research for your product? What monetary value will ­consumers place on your product?

Success stories

What separates some of the new apple ­varieties from others? Why do new varieties Honeycrisp and Jazz seem to be on the upswing in comparison to others?

Hunt answers that some of the credit for the success of Honeycrisp and Jazz go to variety uniqueness, but that also, as in the case of Jazz, aggressive marketing has supported the variety’s introduction. Another new variety, Ambrosia, is still in the gray zone, though it has shown progress, he said. Pink Lady is now established as a new variety, "but it followed a long and arduous road and relentless marketing support, and it took a long time."

Successful new varieties have two consistent themes, he noted: 1) inherent value-added attributes based on the shoppers’ flavor determination; and 2) support by clever marketing programs.

"Every retailer thinks in terms of incremental sales, not merely replacement dollars," he said. "If you merely replace sales of Fuji apples with your new variety, then you haven’t added value because of the cost incurred by the retailer making space for that new variety."

There has been an explosion of new cherry varieties, Hunt observed, but the industry has done a good job in their introduction. The varieties aren’t compared against one another, but they have been used to expand and lengthen the market window, he explained. Cherry marketers have recognized that the new dark sweet cherries are indistinguishable from Bings by the consumer, and they are not trying to confuse consumers with new variety names, he said.

In the end, it is the person who meets the consumer’s self interest that will be the ultimate winner, he said, adding that all involved in a new variety—from the breeder to grower to marketer—must be passionate and have the expertise and financial means to be relentless in taking the product to market.