Stemilt Growers expect rise in Cosmic Crisp apples
Stemilt Growers knows apples are a staple in the produce department all year long. As growers, packers and marketers of apples, the company is able to supply stores with this great fruit and employ people for year-round operations.
“Our crop size varies like anyone’s from year to year, but we are a key player in the Washington apple industry,” said Brianna Shales, marketing director for the Wenatchee, WA-based company. “We represent about 8 percent of the Washington apple crop. We are also a leading grower/supplier of organic apples.”
The family that owns Stemilt has been farming apples for more than 100 years.
“There have been many evolutions in apples, including the introduction of controlled atmosphere storage technology to help store apples later into the season is one that stands out,” Shales said. “Of course, more recently, it has been the rise in new, high-flavor varieties and the introduction of these to the marketplace. When I was a kid in the 1990s, there were maybe five options for apples at a store, but now consumers have access to a wide variety. Stores are usually carrying up to 12 at a time, with a separate area for organics.”
Apples have also evolved into a year-round item thanks to better technology and trial to improve storage practices — things Stemilt have seen success with.
“At Stemilt, we believe freshness and flavor are the keys to apple success,” Shales said. “We work hard on forecasting supply and demand so that we are packing fruit to order — and turn inventory. We have a state-of-the-art fresh cube distribution center that has automation, but also stores apples at optimal conditions for that specific variety. It’s all of these little attributes that add up to freshness and flavor and hopefully that great eating experience for consumers that will then drive another purchase of apples.”
Since apples are a staple, have good shelf life, and are predominantly sold at grocery stores, Stemilt’s apples saw an uptick of sales during the onset of COVID-19, though that leveled off some as the pandemic wore on.
“We had a moderate crop in Washington State in 2020-21 and are expecting similar volume in 2021-22 and good balance between supply and demand but still with the ability to help promote apples at retail,” Shales said. “Every year has its own opportunities and challenges. Fruit color and quality looks great, and sizing will be mixed with both bulk and bag opportunities for promotion throughout the year. It’s early in our harvest timing to know exactly what fruit size and condition will look like, but at Stemilt, we are always working to harvest fruit for the best market window based on its quality.”
She added that since the 2021 crop is just starting harvest right now, it won’t be completely understood until more fruit comes in from the orchard, but noted Cosmic Crisp is an apple that will bring more volume this year and increased opportunities for promotion this winter and spring.
“It’s a branded apple with lots of consumer marketing supporting it, and really checks all the boxes when it comes to what consumers are seeking in an apple,” Shales said. “Honeycrisp has been the one to talk about for several years now, as increased volumes and great demand have helped it rise in the category.”
Additionally, Stemilt is home for both Rave and SweeTango apples. Shales noted both have unique timing to help with early/first-of-the-season apple promotions as well as autumn promotions.
At retail, Shales said sales of apples can be improved by aligning the four P’s — price, product, promotion, and placement.
“Multi-variety promotions are key for apples, and we like to see them at least once per month during the fall, winter, and spring for both conventional and organic fruit,” she said. “Making sure product quality and merchandising are done well helps drive people to the apple category. There are so many options in produce today, so we have to deliver a great experience to keep them coming back for more apples. Bags are a great vehicle too because they can increase the average purchase size while offering a convenient item that rings easy off a UPC at the register.”
Packaging, and especially apples sold in bags, elevated during COVID-19 and remain elevated. The company now sees 60 percent of apples sold in bulk, and 40 percent in bags.
“Organic apples saw an increase in bagged apples,” Shales said. “It was likely about safety at first, but in the future, packaging will continue to be a bigger part of the mix because of the convenience they bring to both retailer and consumer. They also work well in online/ecommerce formats, which have substantially increased the past two years.”