As retailers enter uncertain times during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, apples and pears are certain to continue to be go-to staples this spring and summer.

Apple purchases were up considerably at the end of March – an increase of almost 41% year-over-year the week ending March 21.

This is according to David Roby, brand manager for Domex Superfresh Growers, Yakima, Wash., who said he thinks this could be because apples store well and seem to be one of the items consumers are stocking up on during the pandemic. The company’s apples and pears are grown throughout the Pacific Northwest in Washington and Oregon.

“We encourage retailers to promote core apple varieties: gala, Fuji and granny smith,” he said. “Combined, they only made up 38% of dollars sold on promo, while honeycrisp alone represented 37%.”

However, Roby said honeycrisp apples are being overpromoted, deflating overall apple sales. In the last weeks ending Feb. 22, honeycrisp apples were No. 1 for sales dollars ($73 million) and second in volume (33 million), he said. They were up 2.4% in dollars, and up 18.8% in volume. Average retail was $2.22 per pound.

“Honeycrisp was heavily promoted, with 74% of its volume sold on promo, but only 48% of honeycrisp dollars were made while on promo,” Roby added.

This season, Roby said Domex Superfresh Growers is prioritizing promotion of its Autumn Glory and Cosmic Crisp apples.

Cosmic crisps entered the market in December, he said, and did extremely well. In both January and February, the apple maintained the 13th spot nationwide, he said.

Autumn Glory year-over-year sales growth continues to outperform all core varieties and most club variety apples.

Washington State has a solid crop volume this season (2019-20) with improved quality and sizing, said Toni Lynn Adams, communications outreach coordinator for the Wenatchee-based Washington Apple Commission, adding that the fruit color has been “absolutely excellent.”

“The state had favorable, mild spring and summer conditions in 2019, setting the stage for a healthy crop,” she said. “The total crop volume is on par with the 2017-18 and 2016-17 seasons, after rebounding from a lower crop volume year in 2018-19.”

Washington’s harvest window is from September to early November.

“Thanks to storage technologies and experienced suppliers, apple producers have the ability to provide apples year-round,” Adams said.

Brianna Shales, senior marketing manager for Stemilt Growers Inc., Wenatchee, Wash., said Stemilt grows apples throughout Central Washington, but with a majority coming from the Columbia Basin growing region, including towns such as Quincy, Mattawa and Othello.

“We will have our largest crop of our signature Rave apple yet in 2020,” she said. “This apple is part honeycrisp, part MonArk and comes from the same breeder that developed honeycrisp and SweeTango.”

The apple variety ripens and harvests in late July/early August and has the unique position as being the first apple to market from Washington State (plus it has honeycrisp as a parent).

“Rave is outrageously juicy with a refreshing snappy zing,” Shales said. “Stemilt is very excited about helping retailers jumpstart their apple supplies in August with Rave and backs this awesome apple with lots of work in consumer PR/social media.”

An earlier harvest

Chill hours typically are not a problem in Washington because of the cold nights experienced in the eastern part of the state, said Chuck Sinks, president of sales and marketing for Sage Fruit Co., Yakima, Wash.

The majority of the company’s apples are grown in the Yakima Valley and near Royal City in the Columbia Basin.

“We have experienced warmer weather than normal, so we think harvest will be moved up unless something changes in the weather patterns,” Sinks said.

“The summer cherry crop can sometimes be an indicator of what’s to come with fall apple harvest,” he continued. “We project a cherry harvest about seven to 10 days before last year. An early harvest can make trees vulnerable to frost damage. The impact on apple trees remains to be seen.”

Rebecca Catlett, director of marketing and communications of Okanagan Specialty Fruits Inc., Summerland, British Columbia, Canada, said the company is promoting its two varieties, Arctic Golden and Arctic Granny in fresh, pre-sliced packages. Two consumer pack sizes are available: 5-ounce and 10-ounce bags; a 40-ounce bag is also available for instore fresh-cut programs.

“We estimate that we will harvest 15,000 apple bins on 500 producing acres in 2020,” she said. “In total, we have roughly 1,300 acres, but not all acres are currently producing fruit.”

All commercial Arctic apple trees are planted in Washington State, where Catlett said the weather this season has been relatively normal to date.

“There were a few cold snaps in January, but nothing out of the ordinary,” she added. “Temperatures were slightly above normal in late February and early March, but a cool mid-March slowed bud development back to seasonal timing. We are presently at half green stage and anticipate our apples to bloom around April 18.”

The spring weather in Michigan so far has been pretty good for apple growing, said Diane Smith, executive director of the Michigan Apple Committee, Lansing, Mich.

“A nice gradual warm-up with minimal cold temperatures at night is exactly what apple growers need,” she said. “About 75% of Michigan’s commercial apple crop is grown on the ‘Fruit Ridge,’ which is the area along the Lake Michigan shoreline north of Grand Rapids.”

Apple trends

Honeycrisp has grown in volume significantly over the years and is now available most months of the year, said Shales of Stemilt.

“There are also many club varieties on the market now, which is fun for consumers because they can try new flavors, but important at retail to explain these new products in the limited space they have,” she added.

Additionally, organic apples have continued to grow in supply and have done so in popular flavors (honeycrisp, pink lady, fuji, club apples), Shales said.

Apples are eaten as a snack more than 75% of the time, which bodes well as more people are eating small meals (snack-size), she said. Apples are also one of the best fruits for portability because they won’t bruise or spoil quickly if in a backpack or out of refrigeration.

Stemilt also has a cosmic crisp apple coming off its launch year and Shales anticipates it will have a bigger year in late 2020/early 2021.

“Consumers heard lots about this apple and were excited to try it, so it will be fun to see how it grows next year,” she said.

Sinks of Sage Fruit also is excited about the potential growth with the cosmic crisp apple.

“We saw extremely high demand for this apple during the 2019 crop year,” he said. “The state (of Washington) sold out of our limited supply by March. Washington will have more volume in 2020 to help meet the extremely high consumer demand.”

Proprietary apple varieties continue to add valuable dollars to the apple category, he said.

“Honeycrisp, gala and Fuji are top-performing varieties across the country,” Sinks said. “While mainline variety sales have declined in recent years, red delicious and granny smith still contribute significant dollars to the apple category.”

Apples often fall into current dieting trends, he said, and are frequently used as a main ingredient in juicing recipes. Organic apples are high on an organic shopper’s shopping list; apples are great for a convenient grab-and-go item.

“We have seen a huge surge in demand for apples as consumers are looking for items that will stay fresh in their refrigerator during mandated COVID-19 quarantines,” Sinks said.

Catlett of Okanagan Specialty Fruits said red-colored varieties are doing well in the apple space. However, during taste comparisons that the company performed last year, consumers preferred fresh Arctic Golden apple slices to red, sweet, fresh apple slices of the leading national sliced apple brand and regionally available brands.

“The color of the fruit doesn’t tell the whole story,” she said. “Sustainability is the driver in our creation of Arctic apples. We believe that Artic apple slices are the key to ‘no more half-eaten apples,’ thereby reducing food waste.”

The non-browning feature of Arctic apples also provides a sustainable solution for the entire supply chain thanks to the longer shelf life, Catlett said.

“Arctic apples stay fresh 28 days after they are sliced, providing more time and less food waste for the supply chain and consumers.”

Apple promotions

When it comes to promoting apples, multi-variety ads have proven most successful, especially when honeycrisp is included, said Sinks of Sage Fruit.

“The entire apple category will see a lift when several varieties are promoted together,” he said. “But if only one variety is promoted, the majority of consumers will key in on the item that’s on sale and leave the others on the shelf.”

In addition to ad activity, Sage Fruit partners with retailers to help them with instore promotions to maximize sales.

“Apples should be included in back-to-school, New Year’s resolution healthy eating, organic and holiday ads,” Sinks said. “Sage Fruit often collaborates with retailers to come up with in-store and online promotional materials to help them maximize sales.”

Sinks recommended cross-promotional opportunities for apples including caramel, peanut butter and ingredients for juicing and apple pie.

Catlett of Okanagan Specialty Fruits said the company’s portfolio is focused strictly on pre-sliced apples (and its dried apple snacks – ApBitz).

“We recommend that retailers use our slices where perhaps they have not been able to use fresh apple slices before, such as their retail fresh-cut program,” she said. “With Arctic apple slices, retailers do not have to add costly antioxidants to slow down the browning.”

“By cross-promoting different foods through food pairings, retailers can ideate for consumers so they can grab and go,” Catlett continued. “Pair Arctic apple slices with nuts, spreads, cheeses, crackers and a bottle of wine for a snack or appetizer idea.”

She added that it’s also interesting to note the company’s fry-cut ApBitz snacks came from its desire to reduce waste and use all the Arctic apples regardless of size or shape.

Pear promotions

Roby of Domex Superfresh Growers said anjous were the top pear in sales in the last four weeks ending Feb. 22.

“We suggest promoting anjou pears, as volume is available and the domestic bartlett crop is finished for the year,” he said.

Promote packaged pears, as customer demand continues to grow, Roby said. “It will be interesting to keep an eye on this trend through the current world health crisis,” he added.

There are plenty of promotional opportunities for bagged pears.

“Bagged pear volume was up 7% in February,” Roby said. “Pears are an impulse purchase item. Having bagged pears at the front of produce will increase purchases.”

Stemilt’s Rushing Rivers pears come from the Entiat River Valley and Wenatchee River Valley, said Shales.

“These river valleys run parallel to each other and are surrounded by mountains that keep pears cooler and keep air flowing through the orchard,” she added. “They are the best locales for pears!”

Shales suggested that like apples, multi-variety ads are the best way to promote pears.

“It’s really important to run them regularly (at least monthly) and to keep premium varieties at a different price point from everyday items,” she said. “An ad that reaches 4-6 varieties at once can help volume and dollars trend up!”

As for cross-merchandising, Shales said pears pair well with walnuts and peanut butter, with cheese and wine as classic options.

“Really, any nutrient-dense food that can pair with pears would be a fun tie-in to make in produce if space allows,” she concluded.