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The Future Of Retail Ripening

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We all know the importance of having ripe bananas on display. They are the most visible, popular and profitable item in the produce department, if not the entire store and play a pivotal role in customer satisfaction and loyalty. That’s why nearly all of today’s leading grocery retailers have banana ripening rooms in their distribution centers, because we all know that maintaining control over banana quality is key to success.

As home delivery expands, it’s becoming equally important to make sure that fruit going out for delivery matches the quality of the fruit in-store. And those quality demands both for retail and delivery are quickly expanding to include not only bananas (though they are still the most important) but other popular fruit like avocados and mangoes as well. But even when you have your own ripening rooms, the logistics can be daunting because ripening fruit for retail display and for delivery has its own set of challenges.

David Byrne
David Byrne

Add to this the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) and the push toward fully automated ripening and it would seem there are some new challenges emerging for retailers when it comes to commercial ripening. To give us an idea of where it’s all headed, we spoke to David Byrne of Thermal Technologies. Byrne is one of the industry’s leading commercial ripening experts, having spent the last 29 years providing turnkey ripening room solutions for retailers, wholesalers and growers the world over.

Q: What changes are you seeing in the world of commercial ripening and what does it mean for retailers?

“Looking ahead, there’s no doubt that bananas will continue to be the single most important fruit when it comes to ripening, because they play such an important role in overall customer satisfaction and loyalty. We’re also seeing growing interest in avocados and to some extent pears, mangoes and other stone fruit, which is increasing demand for multi-fruit capable ripening rooms. Interest is also building when it comes to ripening for home delivery, a market that has been growing exponentially since the pandemic and is forecast to exceed $200 billion in 2025.

“As more retailers and distributors expand into home delivery, banana quality and produce quality in general becomes even more important because now, every piece of fruit that’s delivered, for better or worse, becomes a reflection of the store’s entire produce department. And if the quality of the produce delivered is poor or inconsistent, and ‘store loyalty’ is nothing more than having an app on your phone, this can quickly lead to customers changing stores. So as home delivery continues to expand, produce quality and banana quality in particular is going to be a key driver of success.

“We certainly see that reflected in our retail clients who are focused on delivery because they understand that it’s one of the few ways online stores can truly differentiate themselves from one another. When it comes to bananas, I believe this will inevitably lead to longer ripening cycles, because longer ripening cycles improve retail quality, extend shelf life and reduce shrink. It also provides a longer window for bananas to be selected for delivery and helps retain quality longer after delivery.

“There’s no doubt that as grocery delivery continues to expand, just as in retail, the stores that can consistently deliver the highest quality and longest lasting produce are going to enjoy the greatest success. But ripening rooms are just part of the equation. It takes a good process backed by solid training and a quality QC program executed by a dedicated staff to make it all work properly. So from our perspective, assisting our clients to get these pieces in place is a key part of the ripening puzzle.”

Q: What challenges do you see for retailers moving forward?

“To coordinate a successful chain-wide banana ripening program, you need to receive consistent, predictable quality on a daily basis at every facility. If it’s happening, great! If it’s not, you’re likely to have some challenges whether you have your own ripening rooms or not. Good sourcing is critical to success, so working closely with suppliers to ensure your fruit arrives at a reliably consistent standard each and every day at every facility is essential.

“And of course, the way the bananas are handled after delivery will continue to be important because bananas are quite sensitive to their environment. If they are exposed to excessive heat or cold for any length of time before or after ripening – during shipping, on the dock or in transit to the store – it can have a negative impact on quality. Luckily, this type of improper handling, once identified, is typically fixable.

“One final issue we’re seeing can be attributed, at least in part, to the ripening rooms themselves. Today’s rooms are so efficient, we’ve seen occasions when sourcing issues are being overlooked in the belief that the rooms will take care of them. And while some minor issues can be successfully mitigated through careful inspection, identifying the issue and tweaking the cycle before ripening, in general, quality issues with the fruit received invariably leads to quality issues at retail. This is part of what’s driving the push towards more automated ripening using AI.”

retail ripening Thermal Technologies

Q: You bring up AI; is automated ripening using artificial intelligence on the horizon?

“Well, it’s certainly on the way, and Thermal Tech is striving to be at the forefront. Having installed more ripening rooms for more industry leaders the world over than any other provider gives us access to the vast amount of data required for AI and initial steps in that direction are already in progress. Where that leads and how long it takes will become apparent as the process continues to advance, but there’s no doubt that advances in automated ripening will begin to take shape on some level in the relatively near future both for bananas and for avocados.”

“In the meantime, the issues that make automated ripening a challenge are the same issues that will continue to challenge retailers every day. Proper inspection to make sure the fruit received is consistent and uniform; using the proper ripening cycle; careful monitoring of the fruit during the ripening process and exercising best practices during staging, shipping, delivery and display. And of course, it all hinges on people, training and a quality, company-wide QC program. 

“At Thermal Tech, we’re firmly committed to helping our clients achieve the best ripening results with our rooms. So we provide comprehensive training in not only how the rooms work but also how fruit responds to ripening as part of every installation. However, no matter how much we do on our end, we’ve seen time and again that the retailers who are the most successful at ripening are the ones who care the most about fruit quality.”

Q: So in summary; what does the future look like for retail ripening?

“Well obviously, none of us knows exactly what the future will bring, especially when it comes to technology. But there’s absolutely no doubt that controlling fruit quality will continue to build in importance, particularly when it comes to grocery delivery. For some retailers, that will mean installing more multi-fruit capable ripening rooms to handle the demand. For others, it will mean developing strategic partnerships with wholesalers and growers that can consistently deliver fruit to meet their quality standards using their own ripening rooms.”

“We’ve learned a lot about ripening over the last thirty years, not just the technology but also the science. We’ve learned many details about fruit respiration and how the ripening process works and our technology has advanced right along with it. But now, with the amount of real-time data available, I believe it is only a matter of time before more automated ripening becomes a reality for retailers, with the same or greater efficiencies than we’re seeing now.

“That said, ripening is and always has been an organic process. So the human element will always play a role. I doubt there will ever be a day when ripening rooms by themselves will be able to take inferior fruit and somehow make it superior. But I do believe that with the increased use of technology along each step of the supply chain and an increase in data-driven ripening, ripeners will soon be able to control fruit quality better than ever before. As to the economics involved and how much human interface it will require – we’ll just have to wait and see.”

David Byrne can be reached at [email protected].

Read more Ask the Experts articles from The Shelby Report.

About the author

Sommer Stockton

Web Editor

Sommer joined The Shelby Report in January 2022 after graduating from Brenau University in Gainesville, GA with a B.A. and M.A. in Communications and Media Studies. Sommer is excited to learn about the grocery industry and share her findings with The Shelby Report's readers!

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