(April 22) In 1998, Kevin Wright, senior buyer at the Fresno, Calif., office of Minneapolis-based Supervalu Inc., decided to try something he thought might improve sales of peaches, plums and nectarines.

He started ordering fruit that had been truly tree-ripened or preconditioned. Today, he says, it was one of the smartest decisions he’s ever made.

By the end of 2002, sales of preconditioned tree fruit had increased by more than 500% for Supervalu’s 104 company-owned Cub Foods stores and the more than 4,000 stores the company serves.

Granted, not everyone who switches to tree-ripened fruit sees such phenomenal results, but retailers are reporting significant sales increases when they offer tree-ripened fruit.

There is no official industry definition for the term “tree-ripe.” It’s generally accepted to mean fruit that has been left on the tree until it reaches the “California well-matured” level of ripeness, which actually is a measure of the color of the fruit, not the firmness and not necessarily what the consumer might consider ready-to-eat. It could take several days for some fruit labeled tree-ripe to reach a state at which most people would want to eat it.

Some suppliers will ship the fruit to buyers at whatever degree of ripeness the buyer prefers.

“There’s an indication from our focus groups that people would like to have some fruit that’s ready-to-eat this minute, and other fruit that’s ready-to-eat in a couple of days,” says Dave Parker, director of merchandising for the California Tree Fruit Agreement, Reedley.

AVOID THE KILLING ZONE

Unless fruit has been completely ripened or preconditioned, the tree fruit agreement advises anyone who handles peaches, plums or nectarines to keep them out of “the killing zone” — 36-50 F (2.2-10 C). Storing fruit in that range can cause it to lose flavor, texture and its ability to ripen, and eventually it becomes mealy, Parker says.

“When the fruit is kept out of the killing zone all the way from the orchard to the consumer, retailers time after time say their sales go up 50% over the first two-year period,” he says.

Parker estimates that as many as 80% of North American receivers are following the tree fruit agreement’s protocol to some degree.

Oscar Lopez, produce manager at a Whole Foods Market in Monterey, Calif., one of 104 stores in the chain, says Whole Foods, especially stores in Northern California, are into tree-ripened stone fruit and pears in a big way — and it seems to be paying off.

“The Northern (California) region is the most profitable in the whole company,” he says.

Lopez doesn’t believe in offering varying degrees of ripeness at retail, though. All the tree fruit you’ll find in his store is ready to eat right now.

When customers ask if the peaches they buy Monday will be good till Saturday, Lopez tells them, “If you’re not going to eat them till Saturday, you better come back.”

Lopez pays $3-4 above the market value for a box of ready-to-eat fruit, but he says it’s worth it.

While other chains are selling peaches for 59 cents a pound, he’s selling ready-to-eat organic peaches for $3.99 a pound — $2.49 on sale. But Lopez says consumers apparently believe the quality is worth paying for because his customer count has quadrupled in the four years the store has been open.

Lopez further ensures quality by never stacking peaches more than two high, even if he has to restock the display 20 or 30 times a day. Labor is expensive, he says, “but that’s the difference between us and everybody else.”

Lopez sells about 500 cases of tree fruit and cherries a week during the summer.

The only drawback to offering ripe fruit is, “We throw away so much stuff,” he says.

EFFORT PAYS OFF

Duane Wentz, produce merchandiser at Yoke’s Washington Foods Inc., a group of nine stores based in Spokane, Wash., says it takes more effort to keep ripe tree fruit on hand, but it’s worth it.

“We can sell twice as much fruit when it’s ripe,” he says.

At Yoke’s, tree fruit never goes into the cooler when it arrives at store level. It goes right out on the floor or it goes into dry storage.

At some locations, it’s actually stored on the floor next to the tree fruit display.

Wright of Supervalu says he primarily buys preconditioned fruit. When he buys conventional fruit, it is ripened in the warehouse before being shipped to local stores.

Mike Witt, director of produce and floral at Supervalu’s headquarters in Chanhassen, Minn., says the Cub Foods stores offer customers varying degrees of ripeness so they can take home fruit they can eat tonight and some that will be ready in a few days.

He advertises the fruit as “tree-ripened” and plays up the tree-ripe quality in point-of-purchase signs, but Witt says he does not offer separate displays for ready-to-eat and almost-ready-to-eat product.

“If we offer customers preconditioned fruit, customers are confident it’s got the brix or sugar content, regardless of whether they’re eating it now or in three days,” he says.

Last summer he saw a 55% increase in volume over the previous year.

The chain’s tree fruit displays generally consist of 18- to 24-foot dry tables, and Witt says the stores offer employees brochures that explain the benefits of tree-ripened fruit.

When shipping tree fruit to other chains, Wright says, “We definitely educate them about avoiding the killing zone temperatures and following the California Tree Fruit Agreement ripening protocol.”

SIMPLY SAMPLE

Retailers say one of the best ways to turn consumers on to the sweet, juicy taste of tree fruit is to let them try it themselves.

“One of the most important things we do is, we sample,” says Whole Foods’ Lopez. “I want you to taste that peach before you buy it.”

The stores feature more than a dozen domed sampling trays throughout the department.

Supervalu’s Witt says continuous sampling seems to work better than demos.

“We elected to go with the sampling program instead of demos last summer,” he says. “I think we reached more customers by sampling as opposed to doing a couple weekend demos.”

The tree fruit agreement has launched a SpeedSampling program that encourages produce associates to offer customers a sample whenever they express an interest in tree fruit. The organization also has designed a disposable plastic knife with a serrated cutting edge that is available to retailers again this season to facilitate on-the-spot sampling. The tree fruit agreement also continues to offer its popular ripening bags that retailers can give out to consumers so they can ripen fruit at home.