As the peak of Pacific Northwest cherry production shifts from July into August, it’s going to take higher quality fruit to overcome consumer cherry fatigue, marketers say.
Traditionally, Northwest cherry shipments peaked around the Fourth of July holiday, but extensive plantings of late-maturing varieties in recent years are shifting that peak. In 2012, when the region produced a record 23 million packed boxes, 4.6 million boxes (20 percent of the crop) were sold in August.
Mac Riggan, vice president of marketing with Chelan Fresh in Chelan, Washington, said selling late cherries is challenging because of customers’ cherry fatigue.
There’s pent-up demand in the spring going into the California cherry deal, but by the time Washington’s late districts are shipping fruit, that enthusiasm is waning.
That puts pressure on producers to provide a great eating experience in order to entice customers to keep buying cherries through July and August, he said.
“It’s like if you encounter this guy coming out of the desert after a three-week trip, you can probably give him a warm glass of muddy water and he’ll chug it down,” Riggan said. “But two days back into society, he wants a bottle of chilled Evian. That’s what we’re up against—we have to be chilled Evian the whole time and it’s hard to be that way.”
Riggan and others discussed marketing late cherries at the annual North Central Washington Stone Fruit Day last winter in Wenatchee, Washington.
Riggan said the worst thing a marketer can do is have a great promotion for a poor product.
Tate Mathison, a sales leader with Stemilt Growers, Inc., of Wenatchee, said the bigger the crop, the more pressure there is on the later half of the marketing season. By that time, retailers are tiring of cherries, and the marketers are tired of pushing them.
“I think it will continue to be very, very competitive late in the season,” Mathison said. “Customers will demand larger cherries, firmer cherries, and there’ll be more pressure to deliver a good eating experience. We’ve grown cherries in the late season my whole life, and we’ve seen demand for quality and size increase over the years.”
Scott Marboe, marketing director at Wenatchee-based Oneonta Trading Corporation, said that in July and August cherries compete with berries and grapes for space in the produce department. But late in the season is when cherry producers can consistently provide the biggest and best quality fruit.
“I look at that as a huge opportunity to grab that market away from blueberries and grapes,” he said.
Mathison pointed out that the late season is the industry’s best time to plan a promotion. It’s a matter of aligning supply with planned promotions to try to build the market.
“We know the supply’s coming and the more accurately that we can forecast and hit the daily average, the better we will do,” he said. “We have a huge amount of fruit that needs to make its way through the supply chain and if you age that fruit because it’s not picked on time or packed on time or not sold within a day or two, you’re really limiting what’s going to help us, which is the repeat sales.”
It’s only in recent years that the Northwest cherry season has peaked after July 4, Riggan noted, and he questioned whether producers have educated retailers and consumers well enough about the availability of later cherries.
One of Chelan Fresh’s strategies for boosting late-season sales has been to hold consumer demos and sampling in retail stores.
Though it’s expensive to do, consumers more often than not will buy cherries after tasting them.
Less than a third of the customers at a typical grocery store buy cherries, Riggan said, and Chelan Fresh is trying to engage the large number of people who, for whatever reason, don’t buy cherries.
The cooperative introduced a new cherry variety, Orondo Ruby, which generated excitement in the retail stores, and it is considering putting nine-row cherries in a special pack to sell at a premium.
At the industry level, there are two things that could help strengthen the market in the late season, he said. One would be to increase export demand, which would shrink supplies on the domestic market and in effect increase demand.
“And if I could just wave a wand and have something happen in the late season, I’d have Congress enacting a national holiday near the end of July, and give us something else to get more people in the store,” he added.
The discussion took place during the annual North Central Washington Stone Fruit Day in Wenatchee last winter. •