AFTER DELAY DUE TO COLD, CHILEAN FRUIT SALES WARMING UP

After a slow start to the Chilean fresh fruit deal, volume for stone fruit and grapes is picking up for retailers across the country.Vine-ripened programs for marketing the fruit, however, still seem to be problematic, judging from comments made by retailers."Their season was about two weeks behind schedule," said Ken Lanhardt, director of produce and floral operations for Cub Foods' Georgia division,

After a slow start to the Chilean fresh fruit deal, volume for stone fruit and grapes is picking up for retailers across the country.

Vine-ripened programs for marketing the fruit, however, still seem to be problematic, judging from comments made by retailers.

"Their season was about two weeks behind schedule," said Ken Lanhardt, director of produce and floral operations for Cub Foods' Georgia division, Lithia Springs, Ga. "That did affect the promotional aspect of it. We couldn't promote the fruit as early as we wanted to."

Lanhardt said his first major ad for Chilean fruit was set for the first of March, several weeks behind the normal schedule. A number of other retailers had similar situations.

An official with the Chilean Fresh Fruit Association, Lafayette, Calif., said weather was to blame for the crop delays.

"We got off to a slow start this year," said Marty Fischer, managing director for the association. "There was some cold weather in Chile that delayed the season."

In early February, however, the volume of imported fruit rose to match last year's levels, he said. During the 1994-95 season, Chile exported 58.8 million cases of fresh fruit to the United States and Canada, according to association figures. "By the end of this season, we could surpass last season's imports," Fischer said.

To aid retailers who have begun to promote the imports more vigorously this year, the Chilean Fresh Fruit Association expanded its radio ad campaign, Fischer said.

The first flights of radio ads

ran for two weeks in January. Those ads, 30/30 spots that devote half a minute to Chilean fruit and half a minute to participating retailers, ran in the 22 largest markets in the United States. A second flight, which is being introduced into an additional 23 markets in the United States and Canada, will run from mid-February through March.

"There has been a good consumer response to the ads," said Fischer. "Consumers who heard the advertisements had improved knowledge of Chilean fruits, and they also increased their consumption of Chilean fruits.

"It's also worked well for the chains who are sponsoring ads. They are showing increased sales of Chilean fruit," he said.

Fischer would not elaborate on the degree to which some retailers' sales have increased. He said Kroger Co., Cincinnati; Albertson's, Boise, Idaho, and Vons Cos., Arcadia, Calif., are participating in the campaign.

"Those are very positive radio spots, and we use them to promote Chilean grapes and the 5 a Day program," said Doug Hendrix, senior communications coordinator for Vons.

Officials from Kroger and Albertson's could not be reached for comment. Promotions at Big Bear Stores in Columbus, Ohio, were stymied initially by the slow start to the season, according to Gary Bradley, senior produce buyer.

Bradley said he delayed promotions because "we want to have something of decent quality, and good sugar content."

And delays aside, retailers praised the quality of the imports this season.

"Quality and supply have both been really good," said Ben Slok, produce buyer for Ream's Food Stores in Salt Lake City.

Slok had been holding off on promotions until prices came down. When interviewed by SN, he said he was anticipating running grapes on ad around mid-February.

Norm Carpenter, produce buyer at Rosauers Supermarkets in Spokane, Wash., said the quality is so improved this year that it prompted him to jump back into the Chilean deal after a hiatus. "We didn't carry the stone fruit for two years." Of the produce executives interviewed by SN, Cub Foods' Lanhardt was the only one on a tree-ripened program. Fischer of the Chilean Fresh Fruit Association, however, said the trend toward marketing tree-ripened fruit is on the rise.

While the association does not track the amount of fruit that is tree-ripened, he estimated that figure has probably reached 20%.

Lanhardt said Cub is getting "fair to good results" in terms of movement. "That is a higher cost for us, and a higher retail for the customer. But it also offers a much better taste, so we think we're doing the right thing."

Big Bear's Bradley said he dropped his tree-ripened program this season, because he was disappointed with the quality he was getting for the money.

Dick Perkins, produce director for Consumers Markets in Springfield, Mo., said he'd consider a tree-ripened program, but only at the right price.

"We're not on a tree-ripened program, due to the costs," he said. "I'm not sure I could get my customers to pay that retail for tree-ripened fruit. And I'm not sure that we, as an industry, have done a very good job of explaining to the customer the advantages of tree-ripened fruit.