VALUE-ADDED FRUIT SEEN RIPE FOR PUSH

CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- Precut, value-added fruit may be the avenue to pick when it comes to adding incremental sales in the produce department.As Howard Nager, director of marketing at Del Monte Fresh Produce Co. here sees it, value-added fruit is just about the closest you can come to a true line extension in fresh produce.He said the industry's ability in the future to provide consumers with more

CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- Precut, value-added fruit may be the avenue to pick when it comes to adding incremental sales in the produce department.

As Howard Nager, director of marketing at Del Monte Fresh Produce Co. here sees it, value-added fruit is just about the closest you can come to a true line extension in fresh produce.

He said the industry's ability in the future to provide consumers with more products that step beyond the commodity stage will help build demand.

"Today's consumer is looking for freshness, taste, convenience and nutrition," he said.

"Produce operators can translate these needs and motivate consumers into higher frequencies of purchase using value-added fruit."

Fresh pineapple sales, for example, have risen 10% to 30% in recent years, he said. This increase has been spurred by value-added introductions, according to Nager.

Distribution is a challenge for the still emerging value-added fruit category overall, however.

"Pineapple fits well into the value-added mold because of its natural ascorbic acid, which helps extend shelf life beyond one day," Nager said. "This gives pineapple enough time to get through the distribution system."

Del Monte is currently testing other commodities, including mango, papaya, melons and fruit combinations.

These fruits, much like pineapples, pose challenges to consumers with regard to selection and use; that's a signal to the industry that the business these commodities attract is ripe for expansion into the value-added concept, to provide more usable forms, Nager said.

"Offering consumers products in usable forms means that consumers are more apt to try an exotic, tropical or different item and to make repeat purchases," he said.

"The challenge is shelf life and product safety," he added. "This challenge will be met. There is a future for other fruits to go value-added."

Meanwhile, pineapple stands out as the primary success story for the concept so far. Del Monte has been a leading grower and shipper of fresh value-added pineapple since 1987.

"A larger percentage of pineapple is being sold in its value-added form," he said. "Some retailers are selling up to 50% to 60% of their pineapples in precut, value-added forms.

"There is still a segment of the population that prefers whole fruit," he said. "However, for pineapple in particular, there is a tremendous opportunity to boost consumption above the levels of 1.5 to 2 pounds per person, when value-added items are included in the pineapple mix."

One of the chief reasons pineapple has served as a stellar sales success story in value-added guises is its complexity.

"Consumers did not know how to select a fresh, whole pineapple," Nager said. "Once they got it home they did not know how to prepare it."

As a result, Del Monte began offering value-added, precut pineapple to ease consumers into home consumption.

"The product has been in a constant state of evolution," Nager said. "We started working with 5-pound bags designed for food service, salad bar operations and for retailers to repackage.

"As salad bars were phased out, in-store labor reduced and consumer needs shifted, the 5-pound bag evolved into a convenience item," he said, referring to the 16-ounce and the 12-ounce bagged pineapple available in wedges and spears.

Further evolution of value-added pineapple has occurred with Del Monte's introduction of cored and peeled cylinders and a snack pack size. This 4-ounce version further extends pineapple into convenience store applications as well as into grab-and-go retail formats.

"All these versions give retailers the ability to provide fresh pineapple to customers in many different, usable forms," Nager said.

To keep abreast of any shifts in consumer needs, Del Monte uses a toll free 800 number, printed on product packages, offering a 16-page booklet of recipes, nutrition information and pineapple history. In 1994, Del Monte received over 10,000 responses to the package offer.

Del Monte used this opportunity to conduct its own market research on how and why consumers buy pineapple.

Large percentages of consumers using value-added products "translate into increased display opportunities," Nager said.