Northwest cherries delighted Korean shoppers.

Northwest cherries delighted Korean shoppers.

Keith Hu

I remember the first time I travelled to Korea on cherry business.
It was 2005, and I was shocked by the limited fresh cherry awareness in the capital, Seoul. As the largest city in South Korea,
Seoul has a population of just over 10 million people, and the greater region, which includes Seoul, Incheon, and Gyeonggi-do, has almost 23 million inhabitants. That is almost half of the total
population of South Korea. 

During the few days I spent in Seoul, I spoke with people in coffee shops and restaurants, with taxi drivers and weekend shoppers, and asked if they had ever eaten cherries. The answers I received were ­surprising. The people who said they had eaten cherries actually meant the cherries in ice creams, cakes, pastries, and cocktails (maraschino cherries). Not one person in that admittedly unscientific survey had ever eaten a fresh cherry. During that same visit, I walked through supermarkets, hypermarkets, wholesale markets, and visited potential importers and buyers to get a better understanding of what needed to be done. 

To develop the cherry business in Korea, I had to convince potential cherry retailers that this was an opportunity for them, and to create excitement around cherries.

During the spring of 2005, we hired a well-qualified representative in Seoul to start laying down the groundwork for the development of the Northwest cherry business. As a first step, we thought it important to introduce the cherry-eating experience to the Korean consumer. 

In Korea and many other Asian ­markets, in-store product sampling is the most direct and cost-effective way to get a customer to experience fruit. We were able to persuade national retail chains to get on board and display Northwest cherries and run in-store product sampling in select retail outlets. The industry saw a small sales increase to Korea that first year. In 2006, the scope of the marketing activities was increased, and sales increased by more than 50 percent, to just over 95,000 20-pound boxes. The Korean ­awareness of our fresh, sweet Northwest cherries had started to spread, and by 2007, sales of our cherries to Korea surpassed 276,000 20-pound boxes. 

Korean consumers are keenly conscious of the health and safety
of the food products they purchase. The majority of consumers with buying power live in the greater Seoul region, and word of mouth is probably the most effective way to promote a food product there. For example, once the consumer believes a product can provide better health, he or she rushes to the market and scoops up the product. ­Cherries are a perfect item for Korean consumers because they taste great and are full of health benefits.

The Northwest cherry industry has over 55,000 acres of cherries in the ground, and has the potential to grow the overall volume by 25 to
35 percent on any given year in the near future.  The export markets tend to be premium markets that serve as a vital release valve that annually absorbs up to 30 percent of our total volume. A critical ­challenge for the industry will be making sure that the export market grows at the same pace as our industry volume.  

With the dedication of our team in Yakima and around the world,
I believe we will see more success stories like Korea in the foreseeable future. China, Russia, and Mexico are a few examples.