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We Have Our Own Selves To Blame For Poor Growth In Consumption

Last year, the proposal to bring a national generic marketing program to the produce industry was a big focus of contention. We ran many articles, many letters, but of all we wrote about, one letter hangs with us.

It was a note sent from Bill Vogel, President at Tavilla Sales LA in Los Angeles. We titled the piece, Pundit’s Mailbag — Generic Promotion Plan Does Not Allow For Differentiation, and his letter went as follows:

The Produce for Better Health Foundation might have had more success in increasing consumption if we would have produced a cantaloupe that actually tasted like the muskmelon I have eaten as a kid instead of like the cardboard we now often experience; or if the consumer would have picked up a peach from Chile that wasn’t tasteless and brown in the center; and yes, even in our (my) business with mangos, there is nothing more tasty than a ripe mouthwatering Kent, yet the demand is for the hard, fibrous Tommy variety.

Point is the industry has not helped much. However, there are signs that point to the direction we need to take. Look at the increase in consumption of ripe avocados, or the “Summeripe” fruit program, and yes even in our mango business this year with the yellow ataulfo tasty mango and the support of the National Mango Board. Increases here are off the charts.

So, I agree with you — the industry needs to go back to the drawing board; we need to look at the taste and flavor of the product we are delivering and after we have done all this, then we need all segments of the industry at the table to discuss the concept of generic promotion.

Good job here!

— Bill Vogel
Tavilla Sales LA
Los Angeles, California

The point of the letter is that increasing consumption is not just a matter of clever promotional schemes; it has to do with having a product that consumers will enjoy, value and want to purchase again. Part of this is some of the long term issues that Bill mentions — what varieties we grow and promote.

Yet we would say that the produce industry is often its biggest enemy. The thirst for short term boosts in sales leads both producers and retailers to enter into a kind of “unholy alliance” in which consumers wind up getting substandard product.

Recently the Jr. Pundits were in a neighborhood SuperTarget store with Mrs. Pundit and thought they had found nirvana: The store featured a large display of apples — a Jr. Pundit favorite — packed in appealing boxes covered with the Toy Story 3 characters. As this movie is the current rave in their demographic, there was little chance that Mrs. Pundit was getting out of that store without a box or two.

Unfortunately the apples went uneaten. Part of the problem was that the beautiful box that attracted the Jr. Pundits also obscured the fruit. So the bruises and soft spots weren’t obvious. But the apples also had no crunch and were mealy. There are few things worse for the industry than disappointing children with the quality of our products. How can we avoid this in the future?

The first problem is that it is not clear that these apples, marked as Washington Extra Fancy Gala apples, which means they would have been harvested last September, are being properly reinspected for quality. If you note the Washington Apple Commission website lists Galas as being “stocked September through May” and out of season in July and August.

Now our storage technologies are incredible and sometimes a good CA apple is better than an import — but not all are and, sometimes, both can be bad.

We have no way of knowing when these apples were sold to Target or by whom. The shipper could have sold them two months ago and they could have been sitting at Target or at a wholesaler deteriorating. Or they could have been sold right from the shipper last week.

If they were shipped in the same condition that we bought them, this is unforgivable. It is guaranteed to disappoint customers and is an indication that the industry in Washington State needs a better mechanism for ensuring quality on end-of-season shipments.

Of course, however they were purchased, there is a question of what they are doing on display at Target. Another way of putting this question is who, at store level, has a financial incentive to recommend pulling those apples off the floor and dumping them? Or does everyone have an incentive to sell them — regardless of the eating experience the consumer will realize?

Finally there is the issue of why this mega-display of apples is sitting on the floor outside of refrigeration. Maybe this was Target’s idea or maybe a shipper, anxious to move these old apples before the new crop, offered special incentives for an order too large and too prominent to be accommodated on the refrigerated display.

This is always questionable. Frieda Caplan gave a speech years ago to the Washington state apple growers asking, in light of the many millions spent to refrigerate apples at warehouse and in transport, how could the industry tolerate displays at retail out of refrigeration?

Yet, even if peak-of-condition apples, in venues with rapid movement, can get away with dry display without affecting the consumer experience, it really is not arguable that at this late date, refrigeration would enhance the shelf life and quality of these apples.

That being the case, a requirement for refrigeration should be non-negotiable.

That it is, obviously, negotiable, explains a great deal about why it is so hard to move the needle on consumption. As Shakespeare wrote:

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves…”

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