We all know the weather can change things in an instant. In the Northwest, we’ve seen a chilly spring, at best, and as of press time for this column, we expected to start harvest later than our June 1 historical “average” start date.

The California industry, meanwhile, has had an even colder spring, which has pushed the start to their season. Growers there expect to have significant volume during the first two weeks of June.

California, of course, endured significant damage from the heavy rain and wind events from December through March, and the resulting flooding. Pacific Northwest growers, too, have experienced a difficult couple of years. And after the heat wave of 2021 and the painfully short crop of 2022, I thought it was time to check in with the domestic cherry consumer.

The U.S. domestic market absorbs roughly 70 percent of all the cherries we grow in Washington, Oregon, Utah, Idaho and Montana, so checking the pulse of the domestic market is an ongoing part of the successful marketing process. 

Last fall, we interviewed 6,300 cherry consumers, consisting of a nationally representative sample based on region, age, income and a 60/40 female to male split in interviewees. The goal of the study was to measure the consumer’s perceptions of retail pricing and any other key drivers as to why the consumer bought sweet cherries. The responses are numerous, but there were two clear takeaways: Consumers would rather pay less than $5.99 per pound when purchasing cherries, and they would be willing to pay more if cherries had certain health benefits.

Here are some of the key findings of our consumer study:

Summer 2022 retail cherry sales

Four out of five respondents reported buying cherries at least every couple of weeks. Even with the higher prices, 34 percent said they purchased more cherries during the summer of 2022, most often because they just wanted them, the quality was good and for the health benefits. Most of the 11 percent who bought fewer cherries in 2022 said the price was too high.

Cherry pricing vs. other fruits

On average, consumers said they would still buy cherries if the price was more per pound than other fruits, with 43 percent saying they would still buy cherries if they were priced between $1.00 and $2.99 higher than other fruits. Similarly, if they knew cherries had certain health benefits, 41 percent said they would still buy cherries if they were priced between $1.00 and $2.99 higher than other fruits. 

Stocking up/freezing cherries during the season

Most respondents said knowing cherries have health benefits — and retain those benefits in the freezer — would make them more likely to buy additional bags of cherries to freeze. Nearly one-third said they would buy one additional bag, the same number said they would buy additional bags if cherries were on sale, and one-quarter said they would buy a few bags to freeze. 

Northwest cherry health benefits vs. other fruits

Consumers said the fruits that offer the most health benefits are blueberries, bananas, avocados, apples and oranges. About one-third of respondents said cherries are among the healthiest fruits. The blueberry industry seems to have been extremely successful with its health campaign and messaging. The cherry industry may need to make larger investments in its own health messaging campaign. It will be important to understand how best to reach consumers and what types of messaging resonate most. At this point, it is clear our efforts to expand awareness of the health benefits of Northwest cherries is making a difference, but we have more work to do on this front. 

Awareness of health benefits

Half of consumers believe cherries can ease inflammation and help to control arthritis and gout, and nearly half believe cherries can reduce the risk of heart disease and can help control blood pressure. However, a small number of consumers also believe cherries have benefits that have not been proven, indicating some confusion around the health benefits of cherries. The cherry industry seems to have been most successful with health education about inflammation. Given that consumers who believe cherries have three or more specific health benefits are more likely to say they will buy more cherries and pay more for cherries, it may be worthwhile to promote a few different health benefits on packaging and as part of any health messaging campaigns.

Awareness of health benefits as a purchase motivator

About three-fourths of consumers said knowing cherries have certain health benefits would make them buy and eat more cherries. Further, nearly two-thirds of consumers said knowing cherries have certain health benefits would make them buy and eat more cherries even if they were more expensive than previous years. 

Impact of inflation on shopping behavior

Four out of five cherry consumers said they have made changes in response to inflation. Nearly half said they are now looking for sales when buying cherries, one-third said they are buying cherries less often, and about one-quarter said they are buying other less expensive fruit or buying cherries in smaller packages.

Overall, the findings of our research suggest that consumers remain focused on price and value (quality) in the produce department. When it comes to Northwest cherries, it is clear that consumers are willing to pay more for our seasonal fruit, but health benefits seem to be one of the key drivers in the purchase decision.

This spring, we will meet with over 240 different retail groups across the U.S. marketplace. As always, when it comes to the health benefits of our fruit, we will encourage the trade to advertise our fruit — and with this key message in mind: 78 percent of consumers would purchase sweet cherries if they were able to see what key health benefits cherries offer them. 

Along with a strong consumer publicity campaign, we will be asking retailers to increase their coverage of sweet cherry health in their advertising programs. 

We also are supporting our continued health research with trials this year at Texas A&M University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Western Human Nutrition Research Center. In 2023, we will run promotion programs in 18 countries and, at some level, will share health benefit information. We will also continue to push the message that sweet cherries are fat-free, an excellent source of melatonin, high in anti-inflammatory compounds and appear to help reduce blood pressure in humans. 

by B.J. Thurlby