The nature of the competition faced by the fresh grape industry in California has changed during the past 40 years, but the existence of competition itself remains constant, reminds Kathleen Nave, president of the California Table Grape Commission.

During the recent San Joaquin Valley Table Grape Seminar in Visalia, she gave a capsule view of marketing, from the founding of the promotional commission in the late 1960s to the present day.

Per capita consumption of table grapes in 1950, Nave said, was six pounds but plummeted to a mere two pounds in the 1960s as all manner of snacks and confections and other fruit fought for shelf space and consumer attention.

The comeback started with the “Natural Snack” themes the commission adopted in the 1970s to stand up to not only other fruits but snacks and the first modest amounts of table grape imports from the Southern Hemisphere.

By 1985 California's table grape shipments reached 57 million packages and U.S. per capita consumption was 5.3 pounds. But then imported table grapes began crowd the late-season California market.

5-A-Day program

The commission became a partner in the “5-A-Day” government-industry-health agency campaign and remains so today. “At the time, in 1990 just after the Alar scare, the fact that we could partner with health organizations was good enough reason to try something new and radical, even if the common wisdom was it could never work,” she said.

At that time the industry output was 60 million packages and the average American consumed 2-1/2 to 3 servings of fruits and vegetables a day. “Today the average American is consuming nearly five servings per day, and that is very likely to become 10 servings.”

As the California industry became stronger in 1990, with 16 percent of the crop exported to Mexico or offshore markets, late-season imports continued to increase.

The commission responded by upping its promotion, from billboards to sampling in upscale grocery chains, in key international markets. During the 2000 season the commission targeted 20 such markets.

But while the commission was reaching around the globe, it was also focusing an elusive target, the American housewife of the 1960s who had “morphed” into today's woman aged 25-54 in the workforce. The table grape message rode on cable television, magazines, radio, and the budding Internet.

Media fragmented and proliferated, Nave noted, “because we no longer all watched the same three television networks.”

For radio, as an example, every commercial was “tagged” to reach a defined segment of the market. “The radio campaign does double duty: it pulls grapes through the market by reaching consumers with a demand message, and it helps push them through by providing incentives for retailers to promote.”

And competition persists here too. “We compete with other industries that have promotion dollars to use as retail incentives.”

As table grapes increasingly move outside the U.S., the ways of competition multiply, she added. “What works in the United Kingdom doesn't work in Mexico and what works in New Zealand doesn't work in China.”

According to USDA statistics for last year, table grape volume in markets where promotion took place was up 36 percent. In markets without promotion, volume was up 11 percent. In those markets, value was up 32 percent and 2 percent, respectively.

Market access

Along with increased volume on the international scene, Nave said, market access issues have grown exponentially in recent years. “During the 2000 season, they arose in nearly a dozen countries and ranged from tariff increases to import protocol changes and phyto-sanitary issues. These challenges tend to occur during the season when a container arrives at a port or a truck arrives at a border.”

Resolution usually involves the commission, the U.S. government, and the government of the importing country, and the number of issues is expected to increase in the future.

Meanwhile, domestic competition shows no sign of going away. “We need to entice the retailer into choosing California grapes over grapes from any other source. Then we have to convince consumers to choose California grapes,” Nave said.

The California industry came off its 2000 season with a crop of 77.5 million 21-pound boxes, slightly more than the 76 million of 1999.

E-mail: dan_bryant@intertec.com