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Pundit’s Mailbag — Expectations
Too High On Ripe-And-Ready Fruit?

Our piece, Lousy Fruit Undermines Consumption, brought a letter from the UK that focused on the important role played by store personnel in promoting produce. We dealt with that letter in a discussion entitled, Pundit’s Mailbag — More On Lousy Fruit: Where’s The Management?

Now we have a letter from an executive at a well regarded marketing and communications agency that works for many fresh food marketers:

As usual, I enjoyed reading the Pundit of March 25, 2008, and agree, Elizabeth Pivanka does yeoman’s work with huge obstacles and challenges. I also agree with the need for produce managers to monitor product and train staff to keep rotten clementines attracting flies off the floor. Hopefully he/she has a manager that supports the ideal of not sacrificing quality and customer service for the bottom line at every turn.

Where I must respectfully disagree with is your outrage at the store for having unripe fruit that may require some ripening before it is ready to be enjoyed. Even in the height of a store’s local season, there is still a supply chain that the fruit must pass through. And when it is being shipped cross-country or across oceans, it is even more unreasonable to expect every piece of fruit to be ready to eat off the display. It isn’t a farm stand, and the prices we would be paying for fruit sold this way would be astronomical.

Of course, I will add, if a store is going to put a sticker on it that says ripe and ready, it should be. A national chain with one of the highest reputations in the industry can’t even get it right with their avocados, which will show the sticker but still be rock hard, and a couple days from being “ripe and ready”.

I would love to see more POS signage with information on ripening, nutrition, handling and food safety. Here we run into concerns by chain executives of clutter or potential accidents caused by fallen signs. New technology helps, from flat panel screens in stores showing produce tips to the readily available information on the web, but PBH will never have the funds to shout over the fast food and junk food that constantly bombard children and adults.

The new Harris Teeter Your Wellness for Life is a progressive move for a retailer. A company selling food suggesting to some of its customers that maybe they should consume less? It seems counter-intuitive, but the produce department provides some of the greatest margins for retailers, so increased movement can offset lower sales of sodas and junk food, which have often been used as loss leaders to get people through the door. These kinds of efforts show great potential for a change in habits. It’s a grassroots, guerilla approach demanded when going up against the ad budgets of McDonalds and Coca Cola. They are engaging the customer and providing the information needed to develop a relationship that breeds loyalty.

Now I’m just beginning to rant, but the point I really wanted to make is that we are talking about produce, not a product of high-fructose corn syrup and trans fats that can sit on a shelf for months without depreciation. As lovely a thought as it is to have all produce aisles stocked with ready-to-eat fruit, I think it is dangerous to put out that expectation. It is more likely to cause a decrease in fruit consumption, and a lowering of the opinions of produce departments that cannot meet this ridiculously high expectation.

I was shocked to even see you type it, having grown up in the industry and knowing its limitations full well. I even give a day or two for the peach I buy at the farmers market to get really ripe and juicy. If they brought them to the market that way, they probably wouldn’t even make the 50-mile truck ride into the city. Patience is a virtue that is best learned at a young age.

— Jason Stemm
Lewis & Neale Inc.

Many thanks to Jason for his well argued letter. With much that he writes, we are in accord; however we have some caveats:

  1. In general, it is in the interest of the industry to sell riper produce. Not only will consumers be more satisfied but the repeat sale of the item will come quicker. Most consumers are not running a ripening room where they are going to buy product every day to start ripening it for consumption in two weeks. They buy again when they have consumed what they have.
  2. Although the ripe-and-ready-type programs can be a big win, it is in the industry’s interest to label or sign product that needs ripening. Many consumers either don’t know or forget that certain products require ripening. Ripe-and-ready-type programs can help us sell more or at a higher price — terrific, but what is very important is to prevent disappointment with our products. That means we can’t assume consumers know it won’t taste very good if consumed right away.
  3. There are problems with point-of-purchase communication, but those are industry problems and we need to solve them. We can’t allow our challenges to impact consumer enjoyment of our product. Unfortunately, we are not convinced that the problem is difficulty in communication; we suspect it is more a lack of will. If imported stone fruit has a label that says, “This peach will be delicious if allowed to ripen at room temperature for three days,” in the short term, at least, we suspect sales would collapse. Long term, maybe not, as consumers came to have reasonable expectations for their fruit .
  4. As far as teaching children patience goes, if one was really patient one, wouldn’t eat imported stone fruit at all. In fact much of the country wouldn’t eat California stone fruit… we would all wait for the short local and luscious peach season. Wal-Mart actually has a program called “Heritage Agriculture” focused on reviving things such as the two-week season for Arkansas peaches. It is charming and has a lot of appeal, but Americans believe in the “pursuit” part of the “pursuit of happiness” and have no intention of waiting around for anything. If we can’t deliver delicious product ready when the consumer wants it, we strongly suspect some other industry will.

Many thanks to Jason for his thought-provoking letter.

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