Cherry marketers, excited about a new consumer bag that will hit retail shelves in a big way this year, see it as a way to sell more cherries at a premium price.
The bag, known as a gusseted bag, is folded at the bottom so it stands upright when on display.
The 2014 cherry season will mark the third year some shippers have used the relatively new package. Many believe it represents the bag of the future and will be widely accepted within a short time. Some packers plan to use the bag for nearly all of their domestic pack this season.
The genesis of cherry packaging has been a journey, not a destination, says West Mathison, who remembers his grandfather Tom purposely sending the wrong load of cherries in plastic catch-weight bags decades ago to a retailer in desperation because he couldn’t convince any retailers to try the new cherry package.
Mathison, president of Stemilt Growers, Inc., in Wenatchee, Washington, said the cherry industry has historically adopted packaging concepts from other produce items.
“The catch-weight cherry bag was a product used by the grape industry in the mid-1990s,” he said. “Basically, it’s a plastic sack and the fruit is sold as catch-weight.”
Within four years of introducing the catch-weight bags, bag sales quadrupled, Mathison said.
“That was the first step in cherry packaging that transitioned from loose fruit sold in bulk. Since then, there have been different iterations of the bag and size of the bag.”
Later came clamshell containers, a package still used by some. The clamshell was created for strawberries, a fruit that needed rigid plastic containers for field packing and could be cooled fast, explained Mathison.
“It was never designed for cherries that are sensitive to dehydration,” he said, adding that the airflow of the clamshell dries out the cherry stem at the retail level. “However, they work in some formats and for some retailers.”
Several years ago, grapes and mini peppers began showing up in a new type of bag. The new, stand-up bags were sturdy and allowed the printing of high definition graphics on the bags. Cherry packers took notice.
Pacific Northwest and California packers began testing the new pouch two seasons ago and are quickly adopting its use.
Last year, Stemilt used the pouch bag exclusively for a major international retailer. Mathison didn’t release sales numbers because the crop was short, with 40 percent fewer cherries available, and sales numbers would not be representative. “We won’t really understand the potential impact of the new bag until we have a good crop year,” he said.
This will be the third season using the pouch for Columbia Marketing International, Inc., a tree fruit grower-shipper in Wenatchee, said Bob Mast, CMI president. CMI plans to use the pouch for around 85 to 95 percent of its cherry pack.
Peter Verbrugge, president of Sage Fruit Company in Yakima, Washington, said they too are moving quickly to the new pouch and will pack around 90 percent of their 2014 domestic cherry crop in the new package.
“Overall, feedback from our retail customers has been very positive, with increased sales and better-looking displays.”
The main benefits of the new bag are improved protection because of the bag’s rigidity, both in transit and on retail shelves, and improved display due to the bag’s upright design.
“The gusset design makes the bag stand up on its own,” said Mathison. “Produce employees need little or no training to set up displays with the pouch bag, so the likelihood of proper execution and consistent displays go way up. There are some real practical elements of the bag that make it work at the store level and help us sell more cherries.”
Mast agrees the new package results in an improved presentation on the retail shelves.
“Cherries are one of the most premium, gourmet items sold in the produce department in the summer months,” he said. “As the industry transitions to larger fruit with better flavor and nutrition, we need to be looking for ways to improve our presentation.
“Our reason for going to the pouch was to enhance the premium aspect of cherries on the shelf. Packaging is a big part of marketing something successfully.”
In the first two years of testing, consumers have responded well to the new package, he said. “We believe that consumers will feel they can justify purchasing cherries at a higher price if it comes in a premium package. As cherry production costs continue to rise, the bag will help us justify inflation of cherry prices and help return more to the grower.”
Moreover, he says that retailers are more inclined to single stack the pouch bags on the shelf, instead of the standard practice of stacking cherries packages four and five bags high and crushing fruit on the bottom.
The pouch bags display best when bags are taken out of the container so consumers can see the bags. “We encourage retailers to use an inverted box as their display and stack the bags on what becomes a flat shelf,” Mast said.
Another plus is the pouch’s graphic capability. Stemilt uses the strip on top of the bag to provide information about cherry growing.
“We have a good story to tell,” Mathison said. “Consumers want to connect with farmers and the new bag gives us the opportunity to tell our story. I believe that where the bag will really help will be to tell things about our product and resonate with consumers.”
The pouch can be used in export markets, although shippers will need to match it to a shipping container that is also freight efficient. Mast noted that a few export markets are beginning to use pouch bags.
The pouch bag costs a lot more to pack than catch-weight bags. Sage Fruit’s Verbrugge said that his company was receiving an upcharge of $2 per box, a fee that eventually will disappear when more of the industry shifts to the new bag.
As with any significant change on the packing line, there’s been a learning curve in adopting the new bag to existing equipment. “We’ve struggled in making it work on our machinery, and it slows the line down by about 30 percent,” Verbrugge said.
“We’ve also had to play around with the bag dimensions to find the best match for larger cherry sizes at the end of the season while being able to best fit the bags and weight in our boxes,” he added.
The extra package cost and expense in moving it through the packing system is a downside, Verbrugge said. “But the flipside is that we’re moving more product and we’re strengthening sales.”
The cherry grower-shippers agree that the pouch will become the standard package in the industry in the near future. Mast gives it three years to overtake the catch-weight bags. •
Melissa Hansen is the research program director for the Washington Wine Commission. Hansen previously was an associate editor at Good Fruit Grower from 1996 through 2015. Read her stories: Author Index