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Cheers for cherries: these gems are chock full of flavor and health benefits.

AS GROWERS ANTICIPATE ONE OF THE LARGEST CHERRY CROPS IN RECENT YEARS, experts say this year is the perfect time for retailers to aggressively promote the fruit's versatility and multi-layered health benefits.


"Conditions have been such that we are anticipating that the quality and quantity of cherries this season will be high," says Scott Marboe, director of marketing for Wenatchee, Wash- based Oneonta Starr Ranch Growers. "The crop from our company alone should be somewhere in the 1.8 million carton range, which is appreciably more than last year. True, we still have to get through the spring bloom, but barring any disasters from Mother Nature, we should see great numbers, certainly more than last year." He says overall growers throughout the state are gearing up for large crops as well.

One of the factors helping to drive growth is that consumers increasingly see cherries as an everyday summer purchase, Marboe says. "Consumers love the taste, they see the health benefits associated with the fruit and it is also viewed as that summer time treat they can take on a picnic, to the lake, etc.," he says.


Nonetheless, Marboe and others point out that the economy, coupled with peak volume potentially arriving slightly later this year, will make pricing a key factor.

Suzanne Wolter, director of marketing for Selah, Wash.-based Rainier Fruit Co., says the company is anticipating a larger crop this year and she predicts that pricing will be much closer to 2007 levels. Last year, she adds, was so tumultuous that it makes more sense to look back to 2007 for price comparisons.

"It's anyone's guess but if we have the crop we're expecting I would expect retailers will have opportunities to promote dark cherries near the $2 per pound level," Wolter says. "Absolutely, we all need to be cognizant of the economy and the choices consumers are making with their food dollars."

According to the Northwest Fruit Commission, per capita cherry consumption has grown 400% in the past 10 years. However, as Wolter points out, even with this growth, less than 50% of the U.S. population is purchasing cherries on a regular basis. 'This indicates we still have plenty of cherry sales potential," she says.

Bob Mast, vice president of marketing for Columbia Marketing International (CMI), a shipper/packer/grower based in Wenatchee, Wash., is also optimistic this will be a strong summer for cherry sales. "We have the potential for a very good season and are excited about the caliber and size of the crop's potential this year," says Mast. "We'll easily have a larger crop this year than last and are keeping our fingers crossed the season works out well so that we can get dark cherries into retailers' hands by the middle of June and a week or so later for Rainers."

One point of concern for Mast and other growers is the timing of peak volume. "Our cooler weather this season is pushing the crop eight to 10 days later than last year's crop which will prohibit our industry from having the large early volume to run aggressive ads during the 4th of July holiday. Although we have experienced cooler than normal temperatures, we have not experienced any frost damage and have the potential for an 18 million box crop for Northwest cherries," says Mast. "This, in turn, will give us more cherries than we have ever had to promote in July and August, so it should make for two months of huge sales opportunities for cherries."


In light of all the exotic berries being touted for their medicinal qualities, growers say this season presents an opportunity for retailers to get the message out that cherries are also chock full of health benefits. "While cherries are basically fat and cholesterol free, they are also a good source of fiber," says Marboe. "In addition, the fruit is a natural source of antioxidants and a great way to satisfy your daily fruit intake needs."


Making effective use of point-of-sale material available from the industry is one of the most effective ways to promote the health message, observers note. "We feel part of being a valuable partner is helping retailers to create awareness of cherries and their health benefits," Marboe says. "One way to do this is by incorporating point-of-sale materials into your promotional programs. We supply kits, placards, stanchion posters and even in-store TV and radio spots that are specifically geared for that retailer and his market. We use the health message, as well as flavor, taste and peak-of-the-season availability messages, to help drive the category."




Wolter is another who believes 2009 is the perfect time to promote health benefits of cherries. "The 'sweet health' message is a great way to help entice consumers, half of whom are not purchasing cherries on a regular basis, to buy more," she says. "We believe touting their health benefits is a good way to get consumers to increase their consumption. According to a 2008 International Food Information Council Foundation study, consumers are increasingly interested in foods with health benefits. It's in a retailers' best interest to leverage this the best way they can."

Beyond the health angle, Wolter says retailers need to leverage the impulse nature of cherries. "We have somewhat of an advantage in that cherries are one of the few remaining truly seasonal items left," she says. "There's nothing like a Washington cherry. With this in mind, retailers need to merchandise them in a high traffic, highly visible location in the department," she says, noting that keeping displays fresh is also key. "The top factors affecting consumer impulse decisions to buy fruit are quality and appearance. Rotate fruit properly to maintain quality and freshness as cherries are highly perishable."

Wolters says that retailers should merchandise cherries throughout the season--which runs from June to August for Washington growers--and not just at the start. "Failing to stock cherries throughout the duration of the season results in a significant loss of cherry sales to the produce department," she says.

To build sales and generate awareness, Wolter says retailers need to promote frequently. "Research has shown that retailers that run more ads dramatically increase their category contributions," she says. "Run five to six ads [throughout the season] to take advantage of the extended season beyond 4th of July." Wolter also suggests promoting dark cherries and Rainiers together, noting when both varieties are promoted there is a greater overall lift.


Aside from display and promotional suggestions, to sustain interest in cherries throughout the season industry officials stress the importance of developing and implementing effective pricing strategies for cherries this summer. "I think we can expect to see some aggressive retails out there because we will have to move one of the largest crops we've ever had in possibly a shorter time window if the majority of the volume comes in July," says Mast.

Mast says the keys to consistent sales are having high-quality cherries out of the gate, fair pricing and continuous ad promotion. "Running back-to-back ads starting July 4 will keep pounding the message to consumers that cherries are here," he says, adding that some retailers are having success foregoing the traditional high-low strategy in favor of aggressive pricing during a two- to four-week period. "With the economy being what it is and cherries being perceived as somewhat of a luxury item pricing will be an important factor this year," he says. "Given the size of the crop keeping volume steady is critical."

Using the import cherry business from this past December and January as a barometer, Mast is optimistic that there will be positive interest in domestic cherries this summer. "However, this is not the year to take a timid approach--whether we are talking about conventional or organic cherries," he says. "Retailers need to be aggressive with both the size of the displays as well as with pricing. Looking at the challenge we've had selling organic cherries this year--which can price out at about 20 to 60 cents more per pound than conventional cherries--there's no doubt pricing will be a key factor this year. "Given some of the high retails last year as a result of the small, late crop, fair pricing in 2009 is critical."


The many sides of cherries

ACCORDING TO "THE CHERRY NUTRITION REPORT," commissioned by The Cherry Marketing Institute, based in Lansing, Mich., cherries are considered a super fruit, which contain several natural compounds shown to have potential disease-fighting properties. Among other things, the report highlighted the fact that cherries have among the highest levels of antioxidants compared to other fruits. Studies show cherries are also great sources of beta carotene and are one of the few known food sources of melatonin. They contain no fat, sodium or cholesterol and are a good source of fiber and potassium.


"Nutritionally speaking, cherries are good source of the antioxidant vitamin C and fiber," says Roberta Duyff, author and a food and nutrition consultant for the Washington State Fruit Commission, which represents Northwest cherry growers. "Whether as part of a meal or enjoyed as a snack, a serving of sweet cherries contributes good nutrition and only a moderate amount of calories, making it a favorite among the health and fitness crowd." The fruit's portability, she adds, also makes it a favorite with parents.

She and others point out that new research is currently underway to explore cherry's phytonutrient benefits and the role these bioactive nonnutritive plant substances play in terms of health promotion and disease prevention.

Emerging research suggests cherries or the natural compounds found in cherries may help:

* Reduce inflammation and ease the pain of arthritis and gout;

* Offer protection against cardiovascular disease, stroke and certain cancers;

* Reduce the risk of diabetes and insulin resistance syndrome;

* Aid in the treatment and possible prevention of memory loss;

* Manage weight

Play up the local angle

WHILE EXOTIC BERRIES MAY BE ALL THE RAGE, cherry growers, shippers and packers agree with officials at Lansing, Mich.-based Cherry Marketing Institute (CMI) that retailers need to remind consumers that cherries are not only extremely healthy, they are locally sourced.

(CMI) that retailers need to remind consumers that cherries are not only extremely healthy, they are locally sourced.

CMI officials note that nearly 95% of cherries consumed in the U.S. are grown here, with most coming from Michigan, Wisconsin, Utah, Washington, Oregon, Pennsylvania and New York. However, according to one report, almost half of consumers say they do not buy cherries on a regular basis.

Therefore, experts say playing up the home-grown aspect is key if retailers hope to build sales in the category, particularly when it getting consumers to buy more cherries. "Given that the majority of shoppers say they prefer to buy local when possible spells opportunity for retailers," says Scott Marboe, director of marketing for Wenatchee, Wash.- based Oneonta Starr Ranch Growers.
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Title Annotation:FOCUS ON FRESH
Author:Radice, Carol
Publication:Grocery Headquarters
Date:May 1, 2009
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