By Mai Hoang
YAKIMA, Wash. (AP) — Demand for Northwest cherries was strong last summer, but the supply wasn’t always there.
While more than 19 million 20-pound boxes of Northwest cherries — most from Washington state — were shipped in 2015, a majority of the boxes were shipped in June as the hot weather prompted an earlier harvest for all varieties, including cherries that typically came later in the summer.
Cherry shipments peaked on June 25, nearly a month earlier than in 2014. The result: There were record shipments in June, but a drastic year-over-year decline in shipments in July, typically a high-selling month for the industry.
By July, there wasn’t enough supply to meet retailers’ demand, said B.J. Thurlby, president of the Washington State Fruit Commission and Northwest Cherry Growers.
“These retailers have a thousand products (to choose from),” he said during a presentation before growers, shippers and others in the cherry industry Jan. 15.
“When they hear, `I’m sorry, I’m sorry, we don’t have enough fruit,’ they start to shift.”
Thurlby and colleagues at Northwest Cherry Growers outlined the marketing challenges and opportunities for cherries during the annual Cherry Institute.
The event at the Yakima Convention Center drew more than 400 early registrations and was expected to attract about 550 attendees by day’s end.
Keith Hu, who oversees international cherry promotions, noted several successes during the 2015 cherry harvest.
Those successes came despite several challenges, including a strong U.S. dollar that made cherries more expensive and supply challenges due to the earlier harvest.
Nearly 31 percent of the 2015 crop was exported, similar to past years. Top countries were Canada, China and South Korea, but shipments to Vietnam grew, a reflection of increased promotions there.
Hu highlighted successful promotions, such as a contest with an online shopping site in China where shoppers had a chance to win diamonds with a cherry purchase and a pop-up store in South Korea that attracted 8,500 visitors in the last week of June.
And, overall, retailers abroad have been improving their displays of Northwest cherries. “Our displays are getting bigger in every country,” he said.
The big challenge for cherry exports in 2016, as in other industries, is ongoing economic decline in China. Not only is China a top importer of Northwest cherries, but economic declines could impact other top cherry importers, such as South Korea.
But Hu also noted long-term trends in China that could benefit the cherry industry, such as continued growth of the middle class over the next 15 years.
In the meantime, Northwest Cherry Growers are looking at new markets. Hu said efforts are underway to get a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to fund a trial promotion in thePhilippines.
James Michael, who oversees cherry promotions in North America, talked about domestic marketing opportunities.
The majority of cherry buyers in the U.S. are occasional buyers who may opt to buy just one bag or package of cherries every season. In 2015, there were about 82 million single purchases of the product.
Michael said getting Northwest cherries featured prominently in a variety of media, including national food and lifestyle magazines, websites and popular food and lifestyle blogs, will be key in getting additional sales out of single-purchase buyers.
If those buyers bought just one more bag, that would equal 164 million units.
Combined with purchases from more frequent buyers, U.S. shoppers could potentially buy 202 million units of Northwest cherries.
That equals 28.4 million boxes, well above the amount of Northwest cherries harvested in 2015 and even above the record crop of nearly 23 million boxes in 2014.
“There’s still incredible promise at home,” Michael said. (end)