(May 19) The end of Washington Apple Commission promotions poses an immediate marketing challenge for not only the state’s apple marketers, but also buyers who had penciled in help to move fruit this summer.

Simply put, who will provide the incentive money to promote red delicious apples this summer? Promotion incentives from the commission to buyers totaled nearly $5 million in a typical year, or about 25% of the commis-sion’s budget.

Norm Carpenter, vice president of domestic marketing for the Wenatchee-based commission, said the removal of all promotions for the summer marketing period could be felt soon.

“There is so much competition out there, from soft fruit, asparagus, sweet corn. It’s a pretty fierce fight to get the apple ad action we think they deserve,” he said.

For each of the apple commission’s three marketing periods, including the summer period from May 1 through Sept. 30, the commission typically offered nearly 600 incentive contracts to chain stores and foodservices suppli-ers.

The incentive contracts varied from several hundred dollars to many thousands of dollars, Carpenter said, de-pending on the volume of apples moved in the promotion.

Lacking that leverage, it won’t be easy for the industry to keep the apples in the forefront of the retailers’ minds, Carpenter said.

“For many shippers we were the baseline. We were the common denominator for all shippers,” he said, though some shippers offered additional incentives with their customers.

Dan Bates, director of produce for Associated Wholesale Grocers Inc., Kansas City, Kan., said the lack of coor-dinated commission promotions could hurt apple growers “immensely” — not only in the summer, but through-out the year.

“Some shippers can replace (commission programs) with a branded name program, but there is a lot of equity in the Washington apple label,” he said.

Dave Corsi, vice president of store operations for Wegman’s Food Markets Inc., Rochester, N.Y., said the chain valued the commission’s efforts. However, he said Wegman’s valued even more the partnerships and strategies they share with suppliers.

“We like to do what is right for the customer, and let promotions be decided at store level,” he said.

That strategic response to filling the promotions gap is perhaps less troubling than the longer-term implications of the absence of commission retail representatives, promotional allowances that ran into the millions of dollars and category management services used by more than 40 chains.

Putting in place stepped-up incentives to boost promotions and investing in category management tools will come at a cost to shippers and growers.

“Most shippers who put pencil to paper to create their own promotion program, they will find that a quarter a box was a value compared to doing the same thing themselves,” said Steve Lutz, executive vice president of the Perishables Group, East Wenatchee.

In particular, he speculated the shipper community in Washington will collectively have more people devoted to retailers than the 15 field representatives employed by the commission.

While it is possible that individual grower-shippers could choose to forego all promotion expenses, he said that approach will impact the f.o.b. price.

Roger Pepperl, marketing director for Stemilt Growers Inc., Wenatchee, said the company has provided retail incentives in the past and has a plan to respond to the demise of the commission incentives.

Pepperl said one positive for Stemilt having its own program is that the company can target dollars toward buyers that support Stemilt, which he said will provide a direct return to growers.

Of course, part of the art of offering promotion money is knowing when to hold back.

“At certain times of the year, retailers will promote whether they have a program or not. The trick and the challenge is to create a promotion program that hopefully gets retailers to promote at times other than they would naturally,” Lutz said.

Category management: Another looming question for Washington apple marketers and retailers is how to re-place category management functions the Washington Apple Commission provided in the past.

Since 1997, the commission had purchased scan data to capture daily details on all produce sales among its partners’ stores. Compiling that information gave retailers national and regional composites to gauge their own performance, and provided both shippers and buyers a base of information to plan a strategy for building sales.

Having category management data handled by the commission was more efficient than if individual shippers created their own package, Carpenter said — especially since multiple suppliers typically serve large retailers.

With the commission’s category management activities finished, Carpenter said the net result could mean the 45 chains that used such information now have to deal with double or triple the amount of information.

Stemilt was a large user of the Washington Apple Commission category management program with its cus-tomers, and Pepperl said Stemilt intends be involved in managing data that will provide feedback to its retail partners in the future. While not releasing details on its exact plans, he said the system would be put in place over the next several months.