(June 18) Remember when tree fruit simply meant peaches, plums and nectarines?

Today the term can refer to any of dozens of varieties of those fruits, including yellow-flesh, white-flesh and low-acid versions, along with more exotic fruit like pluots, plumcots and apriums.

The California Tree Fruit Agreement, Reedley, lists 38 Price Look-Up codes for peaches, plums and nectarines. And it names more than 50 varieties of plums, more than 80 types of peaches and a similar number of nectarines.

The organization doesn’t track other commodities, but Kingsburg Apple Sales in Kingsburg, Calif., lists about two dozen varieties of pluots, six kinds of apricots and three varieties of apriums on its sales sheet. There are said to be thousands of varieties of tree fruit worldwide.

All those choices can present a challenge for anyone charged with ordering, handling or displaying tree fruit. And pity the poor consumer who wanders the produce aisles trying to figure out the difference between a pluot and a plumcot.

No one is more aware of the dilemma facing produce retailers than the shippers who supply the dozens of tree fruit varieties. And those shippers increasingly work with retailers to help them make heads or tails out of the conglomeration of tree fruit that graces produce tables.

PLETHORA OF PLUOTS

Family Tree Farms Inc., Reedley, offers a full line of tree fruit that includes 23 varieties of pluots alone, says Don Goforth, marketing director. And many of those pluots have their own distinct flavor, appearance and handling characteristics.

The company comes to the rescue of retail produce workers with solutions like its Flavor University — a program that started last season and has been refined this year. It’s generally a two-day session conducted at the shipper’s headquarters. Participants receive classroom and field instruction about the company’s tree fruit.

Kingsburg Apple Sales sends out a list at the beginning of every season that details when each of the more than 125 varieties of plums, white- and yellow-flesh peaches and nectarines and other tree fruit will be available, says John Hein, marketing director. And before new products are introduced, the firm sends out samples.

Despite varietal differences, the California Tree Fruit Agreement doesn’t encourage promoting tree fruit by variety, largely because the consumer probably doesn’t know the difference.

“A peach is a peach as far as the consumer is concerned,” says Dovey Plain, director of retail operations.

Plums are another story, since color can vary by variety and retailers often want a selection of red, black, purple or even green plums. Plain recommends offering a full range of colors.

The California Tree Fruit Agreement should be able to help retailers tailor programs to their needs starting this year. The organization purchased a wealth of category management data and added an economic analyst, Jocelyn Waite, to its staff. The data will allow retailers to see where they stand compared to national and regional composites.

ADDED EXCITEMENT

Bruce Axtman, president of the Perishables Group Inc., Chicago, says year-round availability resulting from global sourcing and the wealth of new varieties can add excitement to the tree fruit category.

But he advises retailers to work with their supplier to determine opportunities in terms of items, segments and assortment of products that can maximize performance of the category.

“The key supplier brings the energy, the focus and a greater level of expertise (about) their category,” he says.

With 15-20 varieties of tree fruit in the produce department, Steve Duello, director of produce operations for Dierbergs Markets Inc., Chesterfield, Mo., puts a lot of trust in his suppliers.

The chain’s 21 stores each offer three to five kinds of plums and pluots, as well as tree-ripened, sub-acid and white-flesh peaches and nectarines. They’re usually displayed on two 4-foot, slant-back wooden tables.

Rather than order a specific variety, Duello buys whatever tastes best at the time. And he doesn’t make that choice alone.

“The suppliers are very important to that decision process,” he says.

The chain features at least one type of tree fruit on ad every week from June until Labor Day, with peaches and nectarines at one price and white-flesh varieties and pluots a step higher. They are identified by signs and PLU stickers. Products — especially pluots — are sampled in-store.

“Pluots generally aren’t very pretty, so you have to sample them if you want sales,” Duello says.

Anthony Barbieri, director of produce for Acme Markets Inc., a chain of 136 stores based in Philadelphia, says that since the stores have increased the number of tree fruit varieties they carry in the past few years, the size of the tree fruit display has increased by 30%. He says new varieties, like white-flesh, are taking sales away from conventional ones.

“It’s all about giving the consumer choices,” he says.

Although he likes to buy fruit grown in the Mid-Atlantic region, like New Jersey, he says premium preconditioned and white-flesh varieties from California give a better return to the farmer and the retailer.

“(Local grower-shippers) have got to figure out a way to try to lift their markets up,” he says.

Sales of white-flesh varieties increase every year as consumers discover their taste, he says. And many consumers prefer low-acid varieties because they don’t tolerate acid well.

Acme stores typically carry preconditioned, white-flesh, local and a tray pack of California jumbo peaches; preconditioned, white-flesh and often local nectarines; and up to five varieties of plums but only one variety of pluot at a time. The Dinosaur Egg from Kingsburg Apple Sales and the Flavor Safari brand from Family Tree Farms are among the most popular pluots at the chain.

“Pluots are definitely very well received today versus six or seven years ago,” he says. “It’s a high-velocity item for us now.”

Acme stores have a minimum of 48 square feet devoted to tree fruit, and that can triple during a promotion.

Barbieri says he relies on PLU stickers to help keep track of the varieties.

“You need to differentiate because everything has a different cost — there’s a low end and a high end within each category,” he says. “It’s not uncommon for us to feature two different price points on two different peaches within the category.”

Barbieri tries to promote at least one tree fruit item every week.

“It’s a short season, relatively speaking, so you need to be aggressive.”

Two-pound bags of tree fruit have been a boon to the 48 stores operated by J.H. Harvey Co. LLC, Nashville, Ga.

Bagged nectarines, black plums, red plums, peaches and apricots have “done a tremendous job for us,” says Michael Purvis, director of produce operations. In fact, they account for 30% of tree fruit sales in the summer.

Priced from $1.59-1.89 each, the bags are promoted in ads on a regular basis. They give customers a choice, a convenient package and a low price and result in less shrink for the stores. Fruit size might be a bit on the small side, but the quality of the fruit is just as good as bulk product, Purvis says.

OFF THE RACK

Bulk product, like Georgia peaches, moves off the regular rack during the summer and onto tables for a better display, Purvis says. The company features tree fruit on ad almost every week during the peak of the season. Whenever possible, Purvis likes to price all tree fruit the same — 69 cents a pound on sale or about 99 cents regular price.

July is the typical time for promoting tree fruit, Hein of Kingsburg Apple Sales says, but individual suppliers may have good supplies of high-quality fruit just about anytime during the season.

Purvis says pluots are catching on at the stores, but sales don’t approach those of peaches. Since consumers in Georgia often are not familiar with pluots, produce workers are encouraged to cut one up and let shoppers try it on the spot.

Indeed, with all the new kinds of tree fruit on the scene, consumer education is extremely important, says Axtman of the Perishables Group.

Consumers’ purchasing behavior often is based on how their parents shopped, he says. But with new packaging and new varieties available year-round, consumers need to be re-educated and encouraged to create different patterns and usage behaviors. That’s no easy task, Axtman says.
On-package information, point-of-purchase materials, promotional activities and loyalty card programs are ways to alter consumers’ behaviors.

Goforth of Family Tree Farms says the company is helping educate employees by means of a new and interactive compact disk that explains the differences between varieties and offers handling tips and other information.

Family Tree also lists its Web address on its fruit, provides POP signs and has representatives who go to customers’ stores to help them build displays and merchandise tree fruit effectively.