(Dec. 2, 5:07 p.m.) SANTIAGO, Chile — Turmoil on Wall Street, the sliding U.S. economy and the devaluation of the peso has many Chilean industry leaders confused and surprised, not really knowing what to expect.

“Can anyone predict what is going to happen?” said Ronald Bown, president of the Chilean Exporters Association. “Nobody was expecting a crisis like this.”

The U.S. economic problems definitely took many industry leaders by surprise.

“The news is really shocking,” said Arturo Costabal, marketing director of Unifrutti Traders LTDA.

Without a doubt, the concerns are many, including skyrocketing production costs, the fluctuation of the peso, higher interest rates and the uncertainty of whether American consumers are going to cut down on fruit purchases this season.

But Brown said that in times of crisis, the industry’s experience has been that people don’t visit restaurants as often, buying more fruits and vegetables in supermarket.

Rodrigo Echeverria, president of Fedefruta, the national federation of Chilean fruit growers, agrees.

“People are going to stop going to restaurants and will eat more at home,” Echeverria said. “Therefore, fruit will be consumed more at home, not only because it is easy to buy, but because it is healthier.”

Pinching pennies

Nevertheless, there are other industry leaders that do not share the same view.

Manuel Jose Alcaino, president of Decofrut, said his general impression is that the average consumers will watch their wallets.

“I think there is some wishful thinking that Americans are not going to go to restaurants and as a consequence they will buy more fruit and take it home,” Alcaino said.

Juan Pablo Torrealba, general manager for Rancagua-based Delifrut, agrees with Alcaino.

“Consumer demand in the U.S. and Europe is going to be in recession. That is a fact, despite what many are saying,” Torrealba said. “They will consume less fruit.”

Torrealba said unlike bananas and other less expensive fruits, Chile’s fruits are generally not cheap outside the country.

“I wouldn’t be so optimistic as to think that the consumption will be the same. Unfortunately demand will go down and that hurts us,” Torrealba said.

Exchange rate rollercoaster

Whether consumers will eat more at home or go to restaurants is not the only concern Chilean growers are facing — the peso fluctuation is like a yo-yo gone mad.

“The Chilean peso is up and down everyday, so it’s absolutely unstable. Yesterday (it) was $552 pesos and today it might be $580 or $400 pesos,” said Cristian Smith, marketing director for Gesex SA, in early October.

“You can’t make a stable decision based on this currency fluctuation,” Smith said.

On Nov. 25, one U.S. dollar could purchase 672.05 pesos.

Victor Moller, president of Hortifrut SA., said that if the value of the peso rises, growers get a better return for exports.

“Even though we are worried about this crisis, we feel that Hortifrut has a strong position in the market and we feel confident that we will be able to move our fruit in a reasonable matter,” Moller said.

The overall sentiment is that growers would get a better return for their exports as a result of a higher dollar, but many are still wondering if they will ever get a break from the soaring production costs.

“Our main concern is that we have increasing production costs in Chile,” Smith said.

Other grower-shippers believe that consumers will limit their visits to the market, making prices go down.

Felipe Juillerat, sales manager for Vital Berry Marketing S.A., said consumer demand will play a significant role this season, with retailers leveraging prices as much as possible to maintain margins.

“There is going to be less demand at some point and we think there will be some pressure on prices for the coming season,” Juillerat said.