Consumers snap up cherries despite fears of cultural rejection

By RICHARD SMITH

For the Capital Press

TOKYO -- Northwest cherry growers can turn to Japan's new market for their later-maturing product.

For the past three years, Scott Hitchman has extended sales of Northwest cherries to Japan. This year, the traditional June 20 to July 10 export season will stretch until mid-August.

"Every year, I have been pushing (retailers) to go one week further," Hitchman said.

This year, the cool spring and summer also delayed the cherry crop in much of Washington state.

Hitchman, president of Milton Marketing, promotes cherries as the Japan representative for the Washington State Fruit Commission. Hitchman also represents the Washington State Department of Agriculture, California Strawberry Commission and the Cherry Marketing Institute of America, which promotes tart cherries.

Last year, Daiei supermarkets ended its Northwest cherry sale around Aug. 15. The period was extended to Sept. 1 this year, said Kazunobu Miyakawa, chief produce merchandiser of the chain of 310 stores.

It was the longest Northwest cherry season Daiei ever had, Miyakawa said.

"Quality being equal, the trend to longer periods will continue in the following years," Miyakawa said.

Hitchman said he turned Northwest cherries into a success story in Japan by making retailers view products in terms of category management, rather than making an arbitrary decision on seasons.

"We showed retailers that selling Northwest cherries would not be detrimental to their other fruit sales," he said.

In mid-August during the Bon holidays -- a Buddhist festival of the dead -- there were traditionally no cherries on the Japanese market, Hitchman said. Promoting imported products during the Bon holidays used to be taboo.

But it turns out that Japanese consumers want Northwest cherries all through August, a result Hitchman achieved from in-store sampling.

"On the third week of July, we did in-store samplings with the five biggest retailers in Japan," he said.

Hitchman also reversed the trend toward smaller cherries. Many years ago, Japanese chain stores marketed a very large cherry, but with deflation stores felt tremendous pressure to reduce price points, he said.

"We worked with the chain stores to show them that if you market a larger cherry aggressively, the consumers will be happy and you will have repeated sales," Hitchman said.

Hitchman has also been pushing the Rainier yellow cherry variety, and promoting summer cherries with point-of-sale posters depicting summertime, outdoor and beach themes.

"Retailers have been very vocal in requesting these types of (point-of-sale) materials," he said.

Total cherry exports to Japan fell 3.5 percent from 2010's 290,000 to 280,000 20-pound cases this year, according to provisional figures Hitchman supplied.

The lower supplies hit Daiei's sales, which this summer added up to only 89 percent of last year's figures.

However, sales of Rainier cherries went up 80 percent and larger dark cherries rose 150 percent, Miyakawa said.

"Consumers' tastes are diversifying, and it happens that they are willing to pay for more expensive items," he said.

This year's lower volumes result from the El Niño cool and wet weather, which reduced output.

"Despite the weak economy in Japan, if we had had more supply, we would have done much better sales," Hitchman said.

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