Stemilt’s Roger Pepperl Discusses Washington Cherries and his Insights as a Former Produce Buyer at Meijer

Mon. June 6th, 2016 - by Jordan Okumura-Wright

WENATCHEE, WA- The key for retailers is to promote now. That is what Stemilt’s Marketing Director, Roger Pepperl, tells me as we discuss the compressed Washington cherry season and how even waiting a week can be a waste of precious time. Roger’s insights into the retail industry aren’t just from his many interactions and negotiations with the retail community, but from his own professional experience as a produce buyer and merchandiser for the Midwest supermarket banner Meijer.

Roger Pepperl, Marketing Director, Stemilt“Being an ex-retail buyer, I can tell you that if you don’t have an ad now, then you will want to get in-store mechanisms and promotions in place ASAP and expand displays,” Roger says. “Our best-in-class retailers are creating in-store destination displays for their cherry categories to drive sales and take advantage of the early crop. As we speak, too many people are wasting precious time with a crop that is unbelievable this year.”

So what is the latest with the Washington cherry season? Roger tells me that prior to the high temperatures this week, there have been several weeks of moderate temperatures in the high 70s to the high 80s with cool nights, and this has brought on an excellent quality crop with large sizing and great flavor.

“Perfect growing conditions,” he says. “This year there are changes in timing for ad programs with 80-85 percent of the fruit shipped in June and July. With the season compressed to about an eight week window, this year will see challenges toward the end of the season for customers who don’t plan their schedules around this season’s new expectations.” 

While retailers look to capture every sale possible, Stemilt is now shipping Chelans and Glen Reds (a Sequoia variety) and has also been shipping the Coral variety. 

“We are winding down on Chelans and getting into Bings in a big way,” he adds. “Fruit has been extremely large with lots of 9.5 row, 10 row and larger with nice green stems and dark coloring.”

Next week 80-plus percent will be Bings, which offer high-flavor and will help to drive consumer demand. Stemilt is also packing yellow cherries and as this high-sugar, specialty cherry family continues to grow in popularity, so does demand. For yellows, the company is packing both organic and conventional Rainiers as well as the Stemilt-exclusive, Skylar Rae variety in limited volumes.

“We only pick the Skylar Rae cherries when they are 22 brix and higher. They are the firmest cherry we grow,” Roger says, adding that Stemilt is packing Skylar Rae in promotable volumes starting immediately and going for about the next four weeks. “We will have more and more volume as years go on to respond to the consumer’s desire for different cherry flavor profiles and eating experiences.”

Skylar Rae cherries will be sporting a new look this year with Stemilt’s aisle displays, which will feature a one-box display unit for Skylar Rae. These cherries will also be marketed in a new dome clamshell that features a high-gloss, metallic label.  A majority of promotions should be starting now and should be planned for the next 3 weeks, Roger notes, and with Rainiers sizing in the 8 to 9 row range, consumers will gravitate toward this variety.  

“For a full cherry season out of Washington, an average retailer is selling 5.4 percent of their cherry volume/pounds as Rainier cherries, and 8.8 percent of dollars are coming from Rainier cherries. That is for the national composite,” Roger tells me. “But our best-in-class retailers that are really focused on Rainers are seeing up to 9 percent of their pound volumes, and 12 percent of dollar volume, coming from Rainier sales. This is all based on capturing these ad periods.”

On the organic front, Stemilt is packing dark sweets and packing organic Rainiers as well. Organic Rainiers will be packed till June 20th and the organics dark sweets will be packed all the way into July.

From June 20th to July 15th, Stemilt will feature it’s largest Kyle’s Pick Cherry program ever. The Kyle’s Pick program features premium varieties and the largest sized fruit, including Stemilt’s Skeenas, that offer high-firmness and high-flavor that are 9.5 row sizes and larger and are picked for size, maturity, sugars, and firmness. These cherries will be showcased in pouch bags in order to help retailers merchandise while driving repeat sales of cherries this season.

From about June 7th to July 1st, Stemilt will be promoting Cherry Festivals with a variety of different cherries on ad from dark sweet cherries to Rainiers and Skylar Rae- all at the same time.

So, what is Roger’s final piece of advice, as a former produce buyer? At least for this piece.

Don’t blink.

Stemilt Growers