(March 17) FRESNO, Calif. — Steady promotion and a strong presence in the produce department kept prices for California table grapes from sinking significantly in a 2002-03 season of record production, the California Table Grape Commission reports.

Total production for the season reached 95 million 19-pound boxes, up from 82.4 million in 2001-02 and ahead of the previous record crop of 90.4 million in 1997.

The 2001-02 crop came up short because of fall rains. But the 2002-03 crop enjoyed warm fall weather, and that helped extend production into December, said Kathleen Nave, president of the commission.

COLD STORAGE

Grapes held in cold storage lasted through February.

“There were new plantings and a terrific long, mild fall,” Nave said. She said crimson seedless grape plantings and production have increased in the fall.

Nave added that crops of 95 million boxes would likely be the norm from now on in years of good weather. “That’s where we should be,” she said.

Nave said that although it was a tough year for some producers, sales domestically and abroad were steady enough to prevent major drops in prices. “There was a huge increase in volume, but not a corresponding drop in price,” she said.

The average box price for 2002-03 was only 17 cents less than the previous five-year average box price, Nave said.

The five-year average for cartons of grapes, unweighed with no extra services, is $10.72 compared to $10.55 in 2002-03, according to the Federal-State Market News Service.

BREADTH, DEPTH OF PROMOTIONS

Nave said it was not any one promotion that kept grapes moving off store shelves last season, but rather the breadth and depth of promotions that helped sales. California grapes are sold from May to February and the way promotions are approached depends on the time of the season, Nave said.

For instance, ad sales are important when Chilean shipments overlap the California season and stocks rise. It is also important to maintain shelf space at times of the year when supplies are lower, Nave said.

“You need a strategic program in place,” she said.

Also, retailers did a good job of displaying grapes in a prominent location in the supermarket, Nave said.

Both green and red seedless grapes are the big sellers at retail. But retailers have found some recent growth in seeded grape sales.

Determining what kinds of grapes consumers like best is fairly easy, Nave said. Consumer preference studies have found that most people like large seedless grapes with a neutral flavor.

However, people also like variety and providing several grape types on a display has been shown to increase sales, Nave said.

While there are no more California grapes to be had, Chilean grape production began in December and production is still strong out of that country at present. The Federal-State Market News Service reports a steady market for Chilean grapes with 18-pound lugs of bagged thompson seedless grapes selling for $18-$20 f.o.b. for large sizes on March 12.

Large wrapped flame seedless grapes out of Chile sold for $20 f.o.b. per 18-pound lug on the same date.