STICKY SITUATION

Love them or hate them, price look-up stickers are here to stay, at least for the time being.The stickers are the main source of identificaton of fruits and vegetables at checkout. Cashiers rely on PLUs to ring up produce items at their correct price. Yet PLUs have pitfalls. Their limitations are becoming more evident as the selection of fresh produce multiplies, along with the growth of organic produce.

Love them or hate them, price look-up stickers are here to stay, at least for the time being.

The stickers are the main source of identificaton of fruits and vegetables at checkout. Cashiers rely on PLUs to ring up produce items at their correct price. Yet PLUs have pitfalls. Their limitations are becoming more evident as the selection of fresh produce multiplies, along with the growth of organic produce. Retailers, especially those with expansive produce departments, have started to look for alternatives.

What happens when the stickers fall off? That's a source of headaches for produce specialist Joe Pulicicchio, who's resorted to stickering much of the organics in-house at the Town & Country Market stores in the Seattle area.

"Identification becomes an issue because the cashiers aren't experts. Organic and conventional products look exactly the same," he said. "Some cases arrive with poor stickering rates and other stickers just fall off."

The retailer's organic produce section is larger than Whole Foods Market's and only slightly smaller than its own conventional produce department, Pulicicchio said. Town & Country operates Central Market stores in Shoreline, Mill Creek and Poulsbo, Wash., in addition to Seattle-area Ballard Market, Greenwood Market and Town & Country Market.

"Sometimes the PLU stickers fall off of produce, or it arrives at the store stickered with the wrong code or the supplier forgot to change the PLU code when they introduced a new product," he said. "When we re-sticker, we do it so the cashier can recognize that a product is organic, instead of conventional."

Normally, the stickers post a four- or five-digit number, and for organic items, the number starts

with 9. Frequently, stickers include the grower's name or logo.

If only 40% of product in a case has stickers, the retailer will re-sticker the contents of the entire case, Pulicicchio said. Sometimes he uses packaging to distinguish organic produce from conventional. Organic apricots, for instance, are packaged in plastic clamshells.

Certain types of fruits, like different varieties of tangerines, look so similar that the retailer has decided to average their costs even though the company pays different prices for them, Pulicicchio said.

The price difference between organic and conventional items is usually about 15%, according to the Organic Consumers Association, so retailers with extensive organic sections have an incentive to make sure their cashiers are ringing up the right prices. Yet, cost is not Pulicicchio's only concern.

"We've received complaints from customers who don't like the stickers," he said. "Cities also have a problem with PLU stickers because they're clogging up the sewage filtration systems." This happens after customers wash them down the kitchen drain.

The problems led Pulicicchio to see what other options were on the market, including a process called natural light labeling, also known as fruit or vegetable etching.

The process uses a concentrated beam of light to remove a small portion of pigment in the shape of the item's PLU number, revealing a contrasting color underneath, which is usually white.

Unlike stickers, the process results in an edible mark that won't fall off, and according to its inventor - Greg Drouillard, director of laser technology, Durand-Wayland, LaGrange, Ga. - doesn't damage produce or change its taste.

"The process just removes the pigment in the upper epidermis, it never penetrates the skin," he said.

Town & Country Market stores began receiving natural light-labeled Red Bartlett and green Anjou pears from Southern Oregon Sales in Medford at the start of last year's pear season.

"People seem to continually fight the PLU stickers," said David Bryan, sales manager for Southern Oregon Sales. "The natural light-labeling process helps identify the fruit without harming it. For every 20 PLU stickers that we put on, maybe one will still be on by the time it makes it to the checkstand."

In addition to etching PLU numbers into pears, Southern Oregon Sales is using the natural light-labeling technology to customize pears for events like weddings.

Do health-conscious shoppers balk at buying organic produce that's been laser-treated? Not necessarily, Drouillard said.

"Organic and natural shoppers are more educated than the regular produce shopper," he said. "Research groups have shown that well over 95% of consumers [who have been educated about the process] accept natural light labeling, and the remainder that are skeptical are not defiant."

To help educate shoppers, Durand-Wayland provides postcards that explain the natural light-labeling process.

Town & Country Market stores took a low-key approach to merchandising the pears. The stores did not distribute information that explained the process.

"We didn't try to play this up as a gimmick, we just put the pears out there," said Pulicicchio, who added he didn't receive many comments or questions about the unusual-looking fruits from shoppers.

Although the PLU number proved to be very distinguishable on the Red Bartlett pears, it doesn't show up as clearly on the green Anjou pears, Pulicicchio said.

"We're going to meet with Southern Oregon Sales and see if there is a way for the laser or maybe even a stamp to show up better on the fruit," said Pulicicchio, who has started exploring stamping PLU numbers on produce with edible, fruit juice-based inks.

Natural light labeling is not compatible with certain fruits and vegetables, such as lettuce, because its color is too close to white, Drouillard said.

"I think that inking may be a better solution than natural light labeling," Pulicicchio said. "We plan to actively reward suppliers who make the switch from PLU stickers. It'll definitely be a determining factor when we're deciding which brands to buy."

Sherman Oaks, Calif.-based Sunkist is testing the use of blueberry-based edible ink to stamp PLU numbers on fruits. According to published reports, it was at one time shipping these ink-coded oranges to Stater Bros. Markets, Colton, Calif. The retailer didn't return SN's request for comment.

Still, not everyone is enthusiastic about replacing PLU stickers.

"If a grower were going to replace the PLU number with this [natural light labeling] technology, they'd miss the opportunity to market their brand on a PLU sticker," said Gary Fleming, vice president of industry technology and standards for the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del.

As far as he's concerned, PLU stickers falling off is not a problem.

"When you go to the grocery store and pick loose produce you might place five apples in a bag," Fleming said. "Let's say of the five, two don't have PLU stickers. The cashier will be able to identify them because the other three will have the sticker."

Some retailers use self-service scanners and produce scales to bolster accuracy. The Bloom stores, operated by Salisbury, N.C.-based Food Lion, allow customers to ring groceries up as they shop with self-scanners. They also feature self-service produce scales that let shoppers weigh items and then print out a produce label. The stores' produce departments offer about 40 organic items.

"Most items in Bloom have their own PLU sticker," said Bloom spokeswoman Karen Peterson. "From time to time, an item may lose its sticker. The scale allows customers to look up their fruit or vegetable either by name, category or picture or they can scan the PLU sticker. Most customers seem to have a basic knowledge of the fruit or vegetable that they are purchasing."

Store associates are trained to have more than a basic knowledge at Angelo Caputo's Fresh Markets. The produce department is the No. 1 department in sales for the chain of four stores, so management makes fruit and vegetable identification a priority for associates.

Cashiers are tested every day, seven days a week, to keep up with new produce items, particularly those in season, and distinguish between look-alikes.

"For a new cashier who may think radicchio is just a smaller size head of red cabbage, we show them the difference between the two items," said Sam Fantauzzo, director of operations and a produce buyer for the Addison, Ill.-based chain. "We take four to six items daily and put the items on a shelf in the compound room. They know they'll be tested on those items. It's part of their daily routine. It just takes a couple of minutes. We've been doing that for years.

"We're putting more emphasis on it because of the variety expanding on a daily basis. We do what we can to have cashiers, if nothing else, be aware of the new items."

Caputo's carries in excess of 350 items in produce departments that occupy about 5,000 square feet. The suburban stores, which specialize in fresh foods and Italian specialty items, range in size from 40,000 to 50,000 square feet.

As far as stickers go, Fantauzzo has no complaints about adhesion. The numbering system is the issue. Different varieties or sizes of the same fruit have the same PLU number even though the items sell at different prices, Fantauzzo said. That limits what the stores can sell.

"You're not able to offer a jumbo grape and a smaller version," he said. "The PLU numbers are the same."

Fantauzzo is open to alternatives to stickers, but so far hasn't come across any. He took a look at a shipment of laser-inscribed Bosc pears delivered to the Chicago Terminal Market but was not impressed.

"You could hardly see it," he said. "It was very difficult to read."