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Apple quality program takes lead from mango and table grape success

Consumer insights

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2021 edition of AFG magazine, available online here.

The success of quality programs for table grapes and mangoes has given APAL the impetus to embark upon a quality program for apples and pears to ensure an optimal eating experience for consumers and build sales.

Establishing a universal quality standard has been a game-changer for the mango industry, with a 30 per cent increase in volume sold and a remarkable 50 per cent increase in returns in just four years.

And table grape growers continue to reap the rewards of an ongoing maturity program designed to ensure fruit is picked at optimal ripeness, with consumer acceptability reaching 88 per cent last
season – its highest point in five years.

“We’re no different to where these two industries were several years ago,” says Justin Smith, APAL Industry Services Manager. “We have flat, if not declining consumption and the prices people are prepared to pay for apples are getting lower. But grapes and mangoes have proven that if you give shoppers more consistent and reliable fruit, you can increase sales and boost returns.

“These industries have taken on the responsibility of providing quality fruit rather than finger pointing or laying blame on the supermarkets or supply chain or shoppers.”

Immature fruit rejected by customers

Tristan Kitchener, Kitchener Partners, Mark Loeffen, Delytics and Jeff Scott, Australian Table Grape Association

The Australian Table Grape Association introduced voluntary national minimum maturity standards for the $900 million industry in 2019, after two seasons of scientific monitoring of five table grape varieties that showed immature fruit was being harvested and damaging consumer confidence.

“Shoppers told us that they were having a poor and inconsistent eating experience. In a single bunch of grapes they could get a sour berry or a sweet one, and they didn’t like it,” says project
partner, Tristan Kitchener from grocery retailing consultancy, Kitchener Partners. “Growers had to resist the temptation to harvest immature fruit to capture higher market prices early in the season, and by waiting and satisfying consumer preferences for sweetness and consistency, sales increased through repeat purchases. Increasing consumer acceptability from 70 to 80 per cent led
to a 24 per cent increase in consumer demand.”

After 13,500 tastings to better understand consumer acceptance of major varieties over two seasons, industry set a minimum standard of 16 per cent Brix (sugar content) for at least 80 per cent
of fruit in a representative sample of table grapes.

Critical to have wholesale ‘buy-in’ from growers

While testing went on, Tristan, ATGA chief executive Jeff Scott and project partner Mark Loeffen of Delytics Ltd held presentations in all grape growing regions to explain the need for wholesale ‘buy-in’ from growers. Supermarket representatives also attended, since 76.7 per cent of table grapes are sold through Woolworths, Coles and Aldi.

“The danger in supplying inconsistent fruit for a seasonal product like grapes is that shoppers may stay away for a good proportion of your season. It’s also important to track how long it takes a dissatisfied consumer to return to the category – in 2020 50 per cent of dissatisfied consumers were re-purchasing within three weeks of their poor experience, but as many as six per cent did not return at all. For most fresh produce categories it takes four to six weeks for consumers to return, and a further two to three purchases before they have the same level of trust prior to their dissatisfactory experience,” says Tristan.

“For fresh produce in Australia pricing is generally supply led, not demand led, so if growers produce poor quality then price discounting is often the lever used. It’s a lose-lose-lose; grower returns
reduce, retailer waste increases and the consumer has a poor experience and potentially switches to a different category.

“The best way to prevent poor quality fruit reaching consumers is to not harvest it.”

Testing results available to entire supply chain

Testing results are published online within 24 hours of collection for real-time feedback to the entire table grape supply chain, including growers, suppliers and supermarkets.

“We have an online portal with secure log in details so stakeholders can quickly check fruit maturity by grape variety. It’s visual and simple to understand; either above the line for meeting the
16 per cent brix and 80 per cent acceptability standard or below for not meeting, and we compared one retailer against two (deidentified) competitors,” Tristan says.

“The project team work closely with Nielsen to monitor the performance of table grapes. Nielsen complete three sets of field work each year in December, March and May as well as a seasonal
‘deep dive’ annually to check that the industry is meeting its objective of 80 per cent consumer acceptability. Industry stakeholders also have the opportunity to suggest questions to include in
future research.”

It took four seasons to boost consumer acceptability from 62 per cent in 2016–17 to 88 per cent last season, exceeding the industry’s 80 per cent target.

ATGA’s chief executive, Jeff Scott, says the biggest win was the whole industry working together to everybody’s benefit.

Quality is key to strong export market

“There’s still a lot of continual education to get growers to adhere to the minimum maturity standard but all growers can see the value, and it’s also critical to maintain our position as Australia’s biggest exporter of fresh fruit,” says Jeff. “We export 70 per cent of our table grapes worth $623 million to niche markets in Asia and if we consistently send mature, high-quality fruit the grower
gets excellent returns and there’s never an issue. Exporters have commented on our quality in the past three years since we implemented the standard.

“On the domestic front we’ll continue to liaise with the supermarkets to encourage quality testing at distribution centres and we’d like to see consumer promotional activities about the program, to give shoppers the confidence that they’re buying a quality product.”

APAL’s Justin Smith says the apple and pear industry is already working with Quality Associates to test fruit and collate inbound quality data in Woolworths, Aldi and Coles, with the aim of presenting the results to next year’s APAL Forum.

Measuring how well fruit survives the supply chain

“We want to know how long that fruit has been in the shop and when it left the distribution centre. Mangoes and grapes have worked out what the measure should be when it leaves the farm to be
the right quality in the supermarket.

“There are times when we send fruit that sits right on the edge of the quality spec, when we know it’s not going to sell tomorrow. So we want to measure how well the fruit is surviving in the supply chain.

“The aim is to work with industry and major customers to bring the quality up, so that we give customers a great consumer experience, all the time. And if we get this right and export opportunities present themselves, we can approach the people who’ve improved their quality and sell some.”

The table grape industry quality project – Table grape supply chain quality 2017-2021 – was a strategic levy investment from the Hort Innovation Table Grape Fund, using the industry R&D levy and contributions from the Australian Government. It has recently been renewed for another three years.

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