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Pundit’s Mailbag — What To Do About Bad Apples

Our piece, We Have Our Own Selves To Blame For Poor Growth in Consumption, brought many notes, including this knowledgeable respondent:

Did you think that I would not have something to say about your “Toy Story Apple Tale”?

It reminds me of the strategy behind the Happy Meal — push the toy to sell the meat. Excellent marketing concept that set the standard for marketing to children decades ago… but, of course, the huge difference is that McDonald’s seldom disappoints the customer with poor quality fries and burgers!

Sometimes the Chinese made the laser shooting right arm of the Luke Skywalker not bend, but the cookie always delighted!

Mimicking this practice with a perishable apple and possible improper handling can spell ‘risky’.

Without placing blame, you did hit on a number of reasons why you were not delighted with the purchase, except for the neat box! Apples tend to bounce around in a container such as you described, and certainly at certain times of the year, the apple may react differently to the bounce.

Top that off with the difficulty of seeing beyond Woody’s cowboy hat to get an unobstructed view of the apple, well you were virtually buying blind!

You’re most accurate assessment and the quote from Frieda Caplan about the lack of refrigeration is likely a huge factor on fruit condition. Not only the lack of refrigeration, but the enclosed container under high intensity lighting at point of display can only reduce the shelf life of apples.

From harvest to delivery to the DC, an enormous amount of money has been invested to keep those apples under refrigeration, and then to subject them to ‘heat lamps’ on the store floor can lead to disaster.

Not only does it cook the fruit, it sends the opposite message to the consumer.

If they are going to write so much on the box, they should make some room for ‘Keep Refrigerated!”

Displaying fresh apples is not quite the same as displaying house wares and sneakers, so the execution of the display must meet the needs of the merchandise.

Last but not least, I am holding back the urge to give you my final explanation on why the product disappointed you, but out of respect for the industry and without having sound evidence on where the weak link was, I will defer from mentioning anything about the geographic origin of the product or that another region happens to be 1786 miles closer to your store.

But I am reminded that I have promised you Johnny Appleseed Apples come this fall for the Annual Pundit Johnny Appleseed Event

— Jim Allen
New York Apple Association, Inc
Fishers New York

Jim is a tireless worker on behalf of his growers. The Pundit and Mr. Allen bravely endured the perils of communism down in Cuba, as Jim Allen fought to get his growers a prominent market position.

So, logically, he can’t be and shouldn’t be indifferent to a marketing chain that allows consumer disappointment with the product.

Indeed this attractive box — which, undeniably, was the motivator for purchase — has the side effect of removing geographic and even varietal distinctions between apples. The box prominently highlights “Apples!” and then the various Toy Story characters. Indeed the only mention of origin or variety is a tiny white sticker, an inch and a half wide by 3/4 of an inch tall, with the letters “WA EX FCY” on the top line and “GALA” on the bottom line. Because the white sticker is placed on a white portion of the box, the sticker doesn’t stand out, and because it is written in “industryease” — how many consumers know what “WA EX FCY” means — they really are selling a generic apple.

Which means, of course, consumer dissatisfaction with the product could easily rub off on other apples.

Indeed a large shipper in Washington sent this simple comment:

There is no excuse for consumer disappointment. I apologize for my industry. Shame on the shipper of these apples.

So the problem is serious, and contributing factors can be easily identified:

1. Shippers can be shipping poor quality and the system does not really preclude that.

2. Packaging can be done for sales impact but not product protection. Could these little boxes be done with tray packs or something that will better protect the fruit?

3. Attractive packaging can promote sales but lead to dissatisfaction if it obscures the condition of the fruit.

4. Communicating proper care-and-handling information both to the trade and to the consumer is crucial.

5. If items that normally require refrigeration are to be sold out of refrigeration at all, it is essential that it be done judiciously. What is the product condition? What is the speed of movement? Jim Allen mentions McDonald’s… years ago McDonalds used to pre-cook its sandwiches. It also marked them so they would be thrown out after a predetermined interval. Perhaps each case put on display out of refrigeration should be marked with a sticker and if it is not sold by a certain interval, be discarded.

The question is what to do about all this. It is in everyone’s long term interest to fix these problems and in everyone’s short term interest to bang the fruit out.

This is a quandary that made last year’s debate over the generic promotion of produce so problematic. Produce is highly variable in quality, yet generic promotion serves to “brand it” as a unity.

It reminds us of the currency crisis in Greece and the Euro — it is hard to have a common currency if each country is able to have its own fiscal policies. It is hard to have a common promotional program if every shipper and every retailer has different acceptable levels of quality.

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