Ripe is right at retail, according to pear suppliers and marketing agents.

Ripe programs are gaining prominence among shippers across the Northwest production region.

And for good reason, said Suzanne Wolter, marketing director for Selah, Wash.-based Rainier Fruit Co., whose own ripe program is entering its eighth season.

“The ripening program is our most vibrant part of the pear program,” Wolter said.

The anjou variety is particularly suited to ripe programs, Wolter said.

“Unlike a bartlett, they don’t change color,” Wolter said.

“It’s more difficult for consumers to tell when they’re ripe. Plus, they respond better to the ripening process. They’re also the most flavorful pear. They eat like a peach.”

The Milwaukie, Ore-based Pear Bureau Northwest is a strong believer in ripe programs and works to educate retailers and consumers about how to tell a ripe pear from one that is not yet ripe, said Dennis James, the bureau’s marketing director.

“There’s no question that as we see retailers moving forward in their ripe programs, that they’re seeing the consumer is interested in that,” James said.

“It’s simple logic. It’s the banana industry of the 1950s moving into the ’60s, when the Doles and Del Montes realized if they initiated a ripening process, they could have a consistent product, time after time, which made it an easier sell, and the consumer could take that home and consume it quicker. You get those same benefits from pears.”

James said Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has been engaged in ripening programs for some time, and that the retail community at large is embracing the idea.

“More shippers are providing that ripening service,” he said.

Pears have a distinct advantage over bananas, where ripening is concerned, James said.

“Pears tend not to ripen real quick, but at a nice progressive pace, and you get a product that will hold up really well on display but is also ready to eat,” he said.

The next hurdle is educating the consumer, James said.

That’s why the bureau is pushing its “Check the Neck” program for consumers.

“We did research this year and found only about 15% of pear shoppers today actually know they need to be checking the neck to know the ripe level of the pear,” James said.

“There’s value in the ripe program, and we want to bring awareness and our support of it as retailers try to get the best approach themselves.

“We want to make sure they’re completing it with a good education program with that customer so it isn’t that haphazard process that one time you get fruit that’s a little flimsier than what you were interested in.”

Check the Neck has been under way for several years. The bureau has detailed instructions for consumers on its website, www.usapears.com.

But the education doesn’t stop there, James said.

“We’re going to make that graphic and unfold it with a couple of versions and have materials right there at the retail display,” he said. “We want to get that concept in front of the shoppers so they can be doing that activity.

“It’s a self-fulfilling dynamic. They check the neck and do notice a little give in the neck. They can get a confidence in that. They get a good eating experience and come back and do that again. You’ve built this tremendous profit opportunity by doing this simple thing.”

He said ripe programs are insurance for shippers and retailers because they ensure a consistent product that will bring consumers back to the stores with regularity.

Mike Nicholson, domestic sales manager for Chelan, Wash.-based Chelan Fresh Marketing, said ripe programs make sense.

“More and more, there is preconditioning of pears, so the consumer takes home a piece of fruit that is ready to eat,” he said.