CINCINNATI -- Kroger Co. has become the first major retailer in the country to offer a line of fully sanitized, tray-wrapped whole fruits and vegetables, supplied by a local shipper who also cleans and packages the items for retail sale.
Currently, the retailer is offering Fuji and Gala apples, tomatoes, oranges, peaches, nectarines and some varieties of potatoes in all 125 Houston-area Kroger stores.
One of the findings that surprised the retailer was that customers said the packaged items tasted better, particularly apples. Blake La Grange, founder of Suntex Group, the Houston-based shipper offering the Suntex Clean line, said the process removes waxes and other coatings that also trap impurities underneath.
"Educating the consumer and the produce manager has been the biggest challenge, telling them what's different about [our processes], but without scaring everyone away from everything else," he said.
Each package, regardless of product, averages one and one-quarter pounds, though count varies. For example, tomatoes are packed three per tray, while apples are moving to a four-pack, he said. Merchandising the line in-store is flexible, though Kroger is taking a dual approach.
"Typically [our products] are integrated, but starting next week, we'll also have our own section, using a slant-back displaying all of our products," he said. "Potatoes seem to do better when they're integrated, but we sell more apples with the separate signage."
Due to standardized weights, pricing is fixed and lies in "the $1.49 range," La Grange said, adding that the line typically sells for roughly 20% more than identical conventional produce, but still less than organic items.
Shelf-life is also increased due to the modified atmosphere packaging covering the produce, he said. Gala apples have lasted up to 90 days on the shelf, and full-red tomatoes can be sold for up to 28 days.