John Baker, center, talks with supermarket staff in Dubai,  a major market for Washington apples.

John Baker, center, talks with supermarket staff in Dubai, a major market for Washington apples.

The Washington Apple Commission is running a training ­program for supermarkets in export markets to help retailers boost their sales of Washington apples and to ensure that consumers receive a high-quality product.

The commission began the retail-training program two years ago in Malaysia, China, India, Vietnam, and Egypt—countries where supermarkets are just emerging and where there’s a lack of knowledge on the proper care and handling of produce.

Imported apples and other produce are high-value, perishable products. The training programs are designed to help importers and retailers reduce their shrink, increase their profits, and provide consumers with a positive eating experience by maintaining the quality of the produce. The program was developed and delivered by John Baker of Produce Marketing Australia on behalf of the commission.

Last year, the Pear Bureau Northwest, Northwest Cherry Growers, and the Washington State Potato Commission collaborated with the Apple Commission to conduct the retail training with funding through a Washington State Department of Agriculture Specialty Crop block grant. Training was expanded to Russia, Mexico, Thailand, and Dubai, and additional workshops were conducted in China and India.

The training workshops cover good retail practices, such as back-room management, displays, ticketing and promotions, and cleaning and sanitation. Participants also learn about retail trends and concepts they can apply. To strengthen the training, display contests are held to allow participating retailers to put the training into practice.

The training also provides an opportunity for the commission and its partners to highlight the strengths and differences of the Northwest products compared with other supplier countries. These strengths include ideal growing conditions (because of the climate and soils), a wide range of varieties, consistent quality because of grade standards (which means retailers can buy with confidence), and retail support from country representatives.

The workshops highlight the fact the price is not the only driver of sales. In almost every country where the workshops have been held, Washington apples are in strong competition with much cheaper apples from China or other countries and local production, yet the market for Washington apples is strong and growing.

For example, the Washington apple industry exports almost four million cartons of apples to China, India, and Dubai, competing against much lower priced apples.

Representatives of the four top global retailers—Wal-Mart, Carrefour, Metro Cash & Carry, and Tesco—have taken part, as well as staff from other international, national, and regional chains.

One participant from Siberia traveled more than 3,000 miles to attend a workshop in Russia. Most workshops had 40 to 50 participants, but more than 80 people attended one of the workshops in Vietnam. In total, almost 1,800 retail staff from more than 100 chains have taken part so far. Participants receive highly prized ­Certificates of Completion at the conclusion of each workshop.

In China, retailers took part in the retail display competitions, which were judged on key messages from the workshops. Six retailers reported they increased sales by more than 200 percent in the three months after the workshop. They allocated between 10 and 15 percent more space to Washington apple displays and reduced shrink by between 4 and 8 percent.

In India, a leading retailer reported increases in produce sales of more than 40 percent within days of the workshop because of better merchandising techniques and displays.

The commission and its partners plan to continue the program in seven countries in 2010-2011. Training will be held in Brazil, Indonesia, and Bahrain for the first time.