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Fruit growers in Switzerland say they have solved the problem of how to get retailers to handle unknown apple varieties.

It began as an effort to market organic apples. Dr. Franco Weibel, horticulturist at the Research Institute of Organic Farming in Frick, Switzerland, said half of the apples produced by organic growers in Switzerland are little-known scab-resistant or scab-tolerant varieties. Scab resistance is important because of the humid climate, but in the past, the usual reaction of retailers was to refuse to take them because they didn’t know the varieties. This was an obstacle to the widespread use of scab-resistant varieties.

About a dozen scab-resistant cultivars had been planted in recent years in Switzerland, and it became clear that a new marketing tactic was needed, Weibel explained at the International Fruit Tree Association’s conference in Tasmania.

His hypothesis was that the first thing consumers consider is appearance, and that the name of the variety is less important. In cooperation with major Swiss retailers, he developed what he calls the Flavor Group Concept, categorizing the scab-resistant varieties into groups to help retailers and consumers understand their characteristics and placing less emphasis on the variety names.

While consumers like to have different apple varieties from which to choose, they want to know how a variety tastes before they will buy it, Weibel pointed out. In a consumer survey that he conducted, 40 percent of respondents said information about taste was "very important" in their buying decision, and another 36 percent thought taste "important."

"It’s all about taste," Weibel emphasized.

Flavor groups

The scab-resistant varieties were divided into three color groups and three flavor groups (sweet, spicy and slightly acidic, and predominantly acidic). Posters and leaflets were developed to explain the taste groups to consumers.

The concept was easy to introduce, because retailers saw the advantages, Weibel reported. Some retailers began ordering apples based on the color or flavor category alone, rather than the variety name.

"That was the breakthrough," he said. "This concept made life easier for the retailers. In fact, it was so successful that retailers decided to adopt the system for conventional fruit. Now, in Switzerland, all cultivars are identified by the flavor groups."

The Flavor Group Concept made it possible to introduce apple cultivars into the global apple market in small quantities without the need of costly and risky marketing campaigns, he said.

Variety team

Although the Flavor Group Concept enables retailers to sell a diverse assortment of apples, it was considered important to avoid too much overlap of similar varieties.

The assortment needed to be not an accidental collection, but a well-planned, diverse assortment based on appearance, flavor, and the marketing period, Weibel explained.

This led to the creation of the Variety Team Concept to ensure that an attractive and high-quality assortment of apples was available. The Variety Team, formed in 2003, is a consortium of growers, retailers, and researchers. The team decides which new varieties to promote. Growers on the team plant one-hectare (2.5-acre) test blocks, and retailers agree to test-market the fruit when the trees come into production three or four years later.

Detailed contracts between the partners ensure that they share the economic risks. Retailers pay growers a bonus price for pioneering the variety. Then, if the team decides not to continue with the variety, the growers have at least earned some revenue to cover their investment.

Under this system, all the entities in the chain—packers, growers, and retailers—work together to introduce new varieties, sharing the risks and benefits, Weibel said. Inclusion of the retailer from the start guarantees support of the chosen cultivars.

"Sustainable production requires sustainable marketing," he said. "With the Flavor Group Concept and the Variety Team Concept, I would say we got a big step closer."