(May 19) Three strikes and you’re out in baseball. But with tree fruit, you’re lucky if customers give you three chances to get it right.

Fortunately, the game of satisfying customers with tasty tree fruit has gotten more sophisticated over the past few years. With careful ordering, handling and merchandising, you can build solid profits with the popular team of peaches, plums and nectarines.

But don’t assume victory before the game is over. Rush to the field with these five winning strategies.

1. SCORE RUNS WITH ADVERTISING

Advertising frequency affects sales and profits. The California Tree Fruit Agreement, Reedley, compared the advertising strategies of two chains. Each allocated 6 to 6.5 feet of space with similar merchandising conditions, says Dave Parker, CTFA’s director of merchandising.

The first chain advertised peaches 15 times during the California tree fruit season and nectarines 13 times. Stone fruit contributed 8.8% to total produce sales, Parker says. The category contributed 6.6% to produce gross profits.

Compare that to the second chain, which advertised peaches six times and nectarines eight times during the same period. Tree fruit only contributed 6.5% to total produce sales and 5.3% to produce gross profits.

“Evidently there’s a big payoff from promotion frequency,” Parker says.

Additionally, CTFA research over several years shows that it pays to advertise two tree fruit items together.

“Try to advertise a peach with a white nectarine or a yellow nectarine with a white peach, or a peach or nectarine with a plum,” Parker says. “The category lift in terms of volume goes up significantly, but the lift in dollars goes up quite a bit more.”

For example, one study showed the lift in sales volume went from 18% when stores advertised a single tree fruit to 22% when they advertised two together. But dollar sales increased more — from 12% to 18% when a second item was added, he says.

Parker believes the increase comes from the excitement the double ad creates in the customer’s mind.

Save Mart Supermarkets, Modesto, Calif., frequently advertises two tree fruits together, mixing yellow-flesh and white-flesh and plums. “We just went through our category reviews and saw a very good response to those specific ads with multiple items at different price points,” says Steve Junqueiro, director of produce and floral for the 97 stores.

2. COVER THE BASES WITH IN-STORE PRESENTATION

If you expect significant sales and profits from the category, you’ll have to match the space you give tree fruit to your sales goals.
“Every category or commodity is vying for more space, but we present a compelling argument that a reasonable amount of space (for tree fruit) will pay off in a big way in terms of department sales,” CTFA’s Parker says.

The average North American produce department space allocated to tree fruit during peak season in late July and early August last year was 5.6%, Parker says. The commission measured the space in about 300 stores throughout the United States and Canada.

One chain measured three of its stores to track the space to sales ratio. The first store allocated 4.8% of department space to tree fruit. The category contributed 6.2% of department sales.

The second store gave 5.9% of department space to peaches, plums and nectarines and noticed the category contributed 7.4% of department sales.

The third store allocated 6.2% of department space to tree fruit, which contributed 8.5% to department sales.

The payoff in dollar sales increases more significantly than you would expect for those space increase increments, Parker says.

The 15 Hen House and 13 Price Chopper stores owned by Balls Food Stores, Kansas City, Kan., have doubled the department space devoted to tree fruit during peak season during the past five years, says Lou Malaponti, director of produce and floral operations.

He gives peaches, plums and nectarines 150 to 200 square feet in peak season and aims for 15% of department sales from the fruit, he says. He got more aggressive with his space and sales goals once he became confident that the fruit he offered customers was the best in the market, he says.

3. BROADCAST AN EXCITING MESSAGE WITH YOUR SIGNS

The fruit might sell itself if you impress shoppers with large volumes, but don’t count on it. Tell them a story with your signs.

A bright sign in front of the tree fruit section at Hen House says, “We work harder so your fruit tastes better. We receive our tree fruits from the top shipper grower of peaches, plums and nectarines in the country. Their fruit far exceeds all national standards for color, size and flavor. We work harder at harvesting. Our grower is more selective when harvesting, picking only the fruit that is at the peak of perfection. This means that you receive a sweeter, juicier piece of fruit every time. We work harder at bringing delicious fruit to you. Have you ever purchased fruit that looks good but tastes bad? We have gone to great lengths to ensure this doesn’t happen by measuring sweetness and maturity levels, controlling temperatures and minimizing handling. There’s no place like Hen House for chin drippin’ good summer fruits.”

As long as you’re telling stories, consider displaying a picture of your grower, playing up the unusual variety names of your tree fruit or outlining nutrition information.

If you’re playing up the Produce for Better Health Foundation’s “5 a Day the Color Way” theme, encourage shoppers to get their white nutrients with white peaches or nectarines, yellow with yellow-flesh fruit and red or purple with plums.


4. PITCH THE RIGHT PRICE

If the fruit is chin drippin’ good, customers ought to pay the price of gold for it. But of course they won’t.

If you price white-flesh tree fruit more than $2.99 a pound, sales slow dramatically, says Jeff Patterson, director of produce and floral merchandising for the 25 Sav-A-Center stores based in Harahan, La., part of The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co’s New Orleans division. Sales decline on yellow-flesh fruit when the price rises above $1.99 a pound. He says this applies to the several locations he’s worked at in his career.

For Hen House, proper tree fruit pricing is a challenge when some stores are in upscale areas and some in blue-collar areas, Malaponti says.

If he advertises peaches at a premium price, it has to appeal to customers in both demographic areas. One solution Malaponti has experimented with is offering size 40 or 42 peaches in the upscale stores and size 60 fruit in the other stores — all for the same price per pound.

5. TREAT THE PRODUCT LIKE AN ALL-STAR

Tree fruit performs best on the bottom line when you handle it properly. Do your homework to determine the level of TLC your fruit should receive.

For example, preconditioned fruit from the companies and alliances that provide it is far less fragile than fruit that has not been preconditioned, suppliers say.

For example, the Ripe ‘N Ready fruit sold by the four suppliers in the Ripe ‘N Ready program is much easier to handle, and you can be far less concerned about the temperature killing zone (36-50 F), says Steve Kenfield, president of Ripe ‘N Ready, Parlier, Calif. Preconditioned fruit is picked with maximum maturity and high sugar content. After it is picked, it’s allowed to ripen further before it is cooled to 32-34 F (0-1.1 C) and shipped, he says.

“Handle it like apples, strawberries or packaged salad. There’s no special handling,” Kenfield says.

The same applies to the Summer Ripe and Sunsweet fruit supplied by the six members in the Summer Ripe alliance.

“You can cool it. It’s ripe. The customer just needs to take it home and eat it. You can’t hurt it once we have gone through our (preconditioning) process,” says Pat Steider, vice president of marketing for Mountain View Fruit Sales Inc., Reedley, Calif., the pioneer of the Summer Ripe alliance.

Save Mart’s Junqueiro has found success at store level with the Summer Ripe preconditioned fruit, which has enjoyed double-digit%age sales growth each year for the past four years, he says.

The stores receive deliveries six days a week, and produce managers are better able to evaluate and manage the category since they have the option of putting the tree fruit in the walk-in refrigerator, he says.

Joe Pulicicchio, produce coordinator for the six Seattle-based Town & Country Market Inc.-owned stores, buys tree ripe or preconditioned fruit most of the time, but he would never refrigerate the fruit, he says.

“Once you refrigerate it, it doesn’t eat the same,” he says. Though he agrees that preconditioned fruit has less internal breakdown, “There’s a proper way to handle and sell tree fruit. Buy good tree fruit and don’t refrigerate it ever. They don’t grow in that environment. If you let one sit on the counter and refrigerate another one, they will eat different. It’s the same with tropicals. It changes the taste of the fruit,” he says.