These cherries were part of a consumer variety tasting survey sponsored by Washington State University to learn more about consumer reactions to a range of cherry variety attributes.
We’ve all done it. Bought some big, beautiful fruit, only to discover that they were big on appearance, and short on flavor. This kind of disappointing experience dampens our enthusiasm for future purchases and is exactly what the Pacific Northwest sweet cherry industry must avoid.
If we expect to sell every Northwest cherry at a strong price, we must provide consumers with a positive eating experience, from early June through August. The industry is already aware of this—in a panel discussion at the 2006 Cherry Institute, Kyle Mathison of Stemilt Growers, Wenatchee, Washington, described consumer purchasing habits: "Size will cause consumers to buy, but flavor makes them come back." A representative from Tesco Stores in the United Kingdom put it this way: "People first buy cherries with their eyes, then their stomachs."
Knowing the fundamental importance of flavor to the Northwest cherry industry, but not knowing how consumers perceive flavor, we began surveying consumers’ reactions to varieties that exhibit a range of characteristics. Our hope was to develop a preliminary understanding of the key attributes that create a positive or negative eating experience.
Results from tests in 2005 gave some indication that Chelan, Tieton, and Santina, three of the earliest varieties grown in the Pacific Northwest, lacked the consumer appeal of later varieties. In making this assessment, consumers indicated that Chelan and Tieton lacked balance of sweetness and tartness.
In 2006, we decided to focus our efforts on early Washington State University releases, retesting Chelan and Tieton, but this time comparing them not only to Bing but to the new early WSU release PC8007-2.
All cherries in the test were commercially grown and harvested except PC8007-2. That cherry was produced at the WSU Roza farm in Prosser. Fruit quality attributes of average fruit size, firmness, and soluble solids were assessed prior to the first test and after three weeks of storage. Average fruit size ranged from 28.7 mm or 9.5 row for Tieton to 23.2 mm or 11.5 row for Chelan. PC8007-2 was the softest cherry at 231 grams per square millimeter, while Chelan was the firmest at 272 g/mm2. Soluble solids ranged from 13.8° Brix for Tieton to 17.6° Brix for PC8007-2. Therefore, we had, across our varieties, a reasonable range in the major fruit characteristics.
Portland, Oregon, area consumers were asked to rate cherries based only on visual appearance and then on taste and appearance. Fruit were presented in one-pound bags. To more realistically duplicate the true consumer experience, we conducted the test at two different time intervals in 2006. The first test was conducted on cherries harvested a few days before the test, and the second after three weeks of commercial cold storage.
The visual test results were designed to determine how a consumer might respond to a cherry when first seeing it on the market shelf, ranking them in order of preference, one through four. In the first test, conducted shortly after harvest, PC8007-2 was rated the best cherry on the visual test by 37 percent of the participants. Chelan was ranked number one by only 8 percent of the participants. After three weeks in storage, PC8007-2 had dropped to third place with only 24 percent of the participants choosing it as the best-looking cherry, while Tieton was chosen number one by 38 percent and Bing by 34 percent of the participants. Once again, Chelan was placed first by the fewest participants with only 5 percent rating it the best (see "Consumer variety rankings, visual appearance only"). Interestingly, participants identified color as the main basis for how they ranked the cherries, except with Chelan where size was identified as the most important reason for its low ranking.
Consumers were then asked to evaluate taste along with appearance on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 indicating an extreme dislike, 5 neither like nor dislike, and a 10 for extreme like. PC8007-2, a large, high-sugar cherry, rated significantly higher than the other cherries in the test conducted shortly after harvest, with a 7.64 rating (see "Consumer variety ratings, visual appearance and taste"). Chelan, small and firm, was the lowest ranked. Respondents ranked "overall flavor" as the most important attribute contributing to their ranking.
After three weeks of storage, PC-8007-2 was still preferred by consumers. Interestingly, Chelan, the lowest-ranked cherry in both the appearance and taste test, received a significantly higher rating after three weeks of storage than either Bing or Tieton. Since PC8007-2 and Chelan received an appearance ranking of 3 and 4 after three weeks in storage, these data may indicate that both PC8007-2 and Chelan retain positive flavor attributes longer in storage than either of the other two varieties. In addition, these results suggest that once a consumer tastes a cherry, size may not be as important an attribute as we thought previously—Chelan cherries were considerably smaller than Bing and Tieton. After three weeks in storage, overall flavor and sweetness were the main reasons why participants said that they would repeat their purchase of the tested varieties.
Significantly more consumers indicated a willingness to pay $2.99 per pound for PC8007-2 compared to other similar cherries.
After three weeks of storage, consumers were less willing to pay $2.99 for every variety. However, significantly more respondents were willing to pay $2.99 for PC8007-2 compared with the other cherries.
After two years of testing, we are beginning to understand fruit attributes that are most important to consumers in their initial and repeat purchases. In 2005, we learned that consumers preferred cherries with a strong sweet/tart balance. In 2006, we learned that skin color was an important indicator that helped consumers with their initial assessment on fruit quality. Fruit size only seemed to be a determining factor when the fruit was significantly smaller than other displayed cherries. Flavor was the number-one determining factor for preference.
Whiting, Matthew, Lynn Long, and Anna Marin, "Growers have many varieties to choose from," Good Fruit Grower, May 15, 2006.