Offseason cantaloupes, Wal-Mart executives say, “taste like a piece of wood.”
Which is why the retail giant set out to create a “designer” melon that tastes as sweet and flavorful in winter as it does in summer. The Sweet Spark, as it is called, has been in the works for two years and is up to 40% sweeter than the winter fare currently sold at Wal-Mart, Bloomberg originally reported.
“We sell 10 times as many cantaloupes in the summer than during the fall and winter,” said Molly Blakeman, a Wal-Mart spokeswoman. “When we looked closer, it was easy to identify why cantaloupe sales dropped off: They weren’t as good in the wintertime as they were in the summertime. This was our way of fixing that.”
The company’s rollout of its new cantaloupe comes as it braces for competition from German grocers Lidl, which opened its first U.S. stores Thursday, and Aldi, which is investing $3.4 billion to open 900 locations by 2022. Both are known for offering sweeping discounts on groceries — potentially bad news for Wal-Mart, which has long relied on its formidable buying power to offer lower prices than its competitors.
It also comes as online retail giant Amazon.com Inc. — which has aggressively been grabbing market share away from Wal-Mart — moves to buy upscale grocery chain Whole Foods Market Inc.
Wal-Mart partnered with Bayer — the German corporate giant that is in talks to buy Monsanto Co. — to develop the new cantaloupe seed. The retailer tested 20 types of seeds and spent six months evaluating their fruit before coming up with the winning combination, Blakeman said.
Wal-Mart employees rated the fruit on attributes such as taste, texture and aroma. (“People who tried it were very fanatical about it,” Blakeman said.) Employees also voted on the fruit’s name, which was whittled down from a list of 150 submissions. The Sweet Spark is not genetically modified.
Wal-Mart’s approach — to create an entirely new variety of fruit that fits its needs — is increasingly popular in the United States as grocers, faced with increasing competition and ever-growing demand for novelty produce, look for new ways to stand out, said Courtney Weber, a berry breeder and horticulture professor at Cornell University.
“The goal is to have something that is special in some way,” Weber said. “From a plant breeder’s standpoint, our goal is to provide improved varieties of fruit — which can mean improving color, flavor, yield or disease resistance.”
Japan, where white strawberries have become the ultimate luxury item, is at the forefront of specialty-bred fruits, Weber said. The practice has also begun to take hold in Europe, where fruit makers increasingly sell certain varieties only to certain supermarkets. And in the United States, programs such as Wal-Mart’s could ultimately help usher in a new wave of improved fruits and vegetables, said Susan Brown, director of Cornell’s Fruit and Vegetable Genomics Initiative.
“Often the problem now is that if we have a new variety of fruit, it’s very hard to convince retailers to try something new,” Brown said. “When a company like Wal-Mart partners with breeders and growers, they know exactly what the market is for the new fruit, which actually helps everybody — consumers, producers and breeders.”
Creating its own breed of cantaloupe — and potentially enlisting a number of growers to produce it — made particular sense for Wal-Mart because of the retailer’s size, breeders said. The company has more than 4,600 stores across the country.
(In 2011, cantaloupes contaminated with listeria, some of which were sold at Wal-Mart, killed 33 people. Wal-Mart later reached a settlement with 23 families for an undisclosed amount.)
“The problem that Wal-Mart has is volume,” Weber said. “They’re such a big company, and they need so much to fill their shelves, that their only real option if they want to have uniformity and to be able to have it everywhere is to do it this way. It’s unlikely one company could grow enough cantaloupes for Wal-Mart.”
Cantaloupes, he added, were probably an obvious starting point because they are relatively resilient and sturdy. A more delicate fruit, such as berries, would have required special care and handling, adding to their cost. The thicker skin on cantaloupe means it can be shipped and stored relatively easily, without fear of compromising quality.
The Sweet Spark is grown in Guatemala and Costa Rica. It is sold in 200 U.S. stores, with an expansion planned for later this year.
The company in recent years has expanded its lineup of organic fruits and vegetables to appeal to health-conscious customers. It has also forged exclusive partnerships to sell products such as Oreo O’s cereal and Jelly Donut Oreos. Blakeman says the company’s next goal is to develop a more flavorful tomato.
Doug McMillon, president and chief executive of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., told reporters this month: “If you try to frame what we’re doing, it’s pretty simple: We’re trying to win customers. We’re working on cost and price. We’re working on assortment.”
Bhattarai writes for the Washington Post.