After five years of trying to get retailers and shippers to join the band on Price Look-Up codes -- and largely succeeding -- the Produce Electronic Identification Board now wants to fine-tune the performance.
PEIB plans to overhaul the standardized coding system for the first time, in order to keep pace with changes in merchandising practices and the introduction of new items in the produce department, according to the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del., which staffs PEIB from its own board.
"[This] is a crucial opportunity for everyone who has seen the value of the standard PLUs to tell us where they think the system needs some tuning," Dan Hamilton, PEIB chairman and vice president of produce and floral for H.E. Butt Grocery Co., San Antonio, said in a statement.
"When the numbers were first developed nearly six years ago, few people understood what an impact PLUs would have on our business. Now everyone does, and the level of interest is much greater. So we need the feedback to ensure our first overhaul captures as much valuable input as we can," he said.
PEIB is seeking comment from shippers, regional associations, promotional organizations and retailers about the PLU program so far.
PEIB plans to survey retailers this month, to gather reaction from the retail side about the issue. That survey has three major goals: to assess the current and planned levels of standard PLU use, to publicize PEIB's plan to assign new PLUs to produce outside the current 4000 range and to encourage retailers to submit recommendations for changes to the coding system.
It also appointed three task forces to begin a review of all items in the standard PLU lists. The task forces, an apple and pear task force, a citrus task force and a task force for all other items, will seek comment from the supply side of the industry.
The entire PEIB board will meet in June at Monterey, Calif., before the Annual Produce Convention there.
As part of the call for industry input, the International Apple Institute convened a panel discussion on PLUs at its convention and annual business meeting, held last month in New Orleans.
That discussion featured panelists representing different apple growing regions across the country.
A. Ellen Terpstra, president of the apple institute and chairwoman of the PEIB apples and pears task force, outlined some of the issues faced by apple growers who are grappling with PLUs.
Those include questions about what new PLU codes are needed, whether the separate codes for Eastern and Western apples are necessary, whether a different sizing break point should be used, and whether every apple variety needs a separate code for large and small sizes.
Moderator Phillip Glaize Jr., manager of Fred Glaize L.C. in Winchester, Va., said some Eastern apple growers and shippers are in favor of one primary PLU code for every variety, instead of two codes each -- for large and small sizes of the same variety.
"We felt it would be very workable to have a primary PLU number for every apple variety," he said.
"Having a secondary number available to us would offer us the flexibility for marketing -- that I think we all want. Thus far, nobody has come up with reasons why this won't work," he said.
Rick Chandler, executive director of the Northeast McIntosh Growers Association in Westfield, Mass., said the idea sounded viable.
"I think this primary and secondary proposal would solve a lot of our problems," he said. "We sometimes have retailers who want to market 96 [size McIntoshes] and 120 [size] together, [but] who are on two different sides of the split points for us," he said.
Apple growers and shippers acknowledged that they need to work with retailers and consumers to find out what will work best for everyone.
"We certainly want to cooperate with the retail community. After all, that is why we're in business. We want to make things simple for them, and we want to make it simple for the consumer," said Pamela Schwallier, sales manager for Great Lakes Fruit & Produce, Grand Rapids, Mich. Jim Doherty, retail marketing director of the Washington Apple Commission in Wenatchee, Wash., said the apple industry needs to consider how it will reserve the codes it needs, whether those numbers are immediately used or not.
The apple industry also needs to bear in mind how retailers will react to adding more PLU codes in their systems when the industry breaks out new codes, he said.
Terpstra said she had already talked to PEIB officials about the new system, and the staff foresaw no immediate problems with a primary and secondary numbering system for apples.
She also said the apple industry could put in a bid with PEIB for extra codes.
"We could, in effect, request both PLU numbers as primary and secondary, so you could reserve a slot for those. And we wouldn't have to come back in a few years and ask for those numbers," she said.