HOOD RIVER — By delivering ripe and ready-to-eat pears to supermarket shelves, growers can boost sales and drive repeat purchases amid a crowded and competitive produce department, industry experts say.

Kevin Moffitt, president and CEO of Pear Bureau Northwest, said surveys show 60% of consumers believe pears should be ripe when bought.

“We’re in a want-it-now society,” Moffitt told growers Tuesday, Feb. 4, at the Oregon State University Extension winter horticulture meeting in Hood River. “When we’re at the store and grapes are ready to eat right then, and apples are ready to eat right then … they’re ready to go. With our pears, we just don’t quite have that yet.”

One way to get there, Moffitt said, is through “conditioned” fruit — that is, pears that have been brought to their “just starting to ripen” state before they are shipped to retailers.

Conditioning is a process in which chilled pears are brought into a ripening room and warmed to room temperature while being treated with ethylene, a natural hormone that regulates the ripening of plants.

Pears are then cooled to between 32 and 34 degrees to stay firm through storage.

Moffitt, who began his career as a ripening consultant for Dole Food Co., described conditioning as a way to unlock pears’ flavor and improve consistency.

“Consumers are buying with their eyes, but they’re coming back for the flavor,” Moffitt said. “One proven way to get that flavor is to condition pears.”

To illustrate his point, growers were invited to compare conditioned green d’Anjou pears and those that weren’t. The difference in taste was notable. The nonconditioned pears were tougher and tasted somewhat bland, while the conditioned pears were soft, juicy and highly flavorful.

That is what consumers want as soon as they bring pears home, Moffitt said. Research from the Pear Bureau has determined that half of consumers plan to eat pears within two days of purchase, and 71% plan to eat them within three days of purchase.

Nielsen consumer survey data also shows that conditioning increases pear sales. In a 2012 test, stores carrying conditioned d’Anjou pears saw sales increase by 19.5% over 12 weeks. Moffitt said one retailer working with the Pear Bureau recorded a 37% increase in green d’Anjou sales two years after a conditioning program was started.

“That’s a decent number for a retailer to hear,” Moffitt said. “That’s something that opens their eyes.”

Mike Parrish, pear category manager for Stemilt Growers, said the pear industry needs to reach what he called “master level” ripening programs to compete with other popular ready-to-eat products such as apples and grapes. Stemilt, of Wenatchee, Washington, provided pears for the taste test.

While marketing alone can lead to linear growth within the industry, Parrish said marketing and ripening programs in combination can lead to exponential growth. He boiled down his conditioning recommendations to the acronym MATTER, which stands for Maturity, Airflow, Temperature, Time, Ethylene and Relative humidity.

In ripening, Parrish said it’s about constantly fine-tuning timing and conditioning. He suggested growers hold back samples and do plenty of first-hand tasting to ensure consistency.

“This is a journey. The first part in that journey is eating a lot of fruit, and being your biggest critic,” Parrish said. “Getting consistent product to the customer, that’s ultimately what we gotta do.”

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