The sweet spot

How American cherries got their start in China


To ‘cherry pick’ talent is to suggest that you are choosing the very best. And for a long time that was how the cherry was viewed by Chinese fruit lovers. Locally-grown cherries were viewed as a prestigious luxury item, reserved for the rich, and for special occasions.

That perception has changed in recent years, helped by entrepreneurs like Zhao Guozhang. In 2009 he founded e-commerce site Fruit Day, which as its name suggests was designed to sell fresh fruit to consumers over the internet. According to 21CN Business Herald, Zhao settled on the cherry as his “flagship” product, because few ate it regularly and competition from local supermarkets was thin.

Why so? Well, cost. Chinese cherries were selling – in smallish quantities – for the exorbitant price of Rmb360 ($56.64) per kilo. “When we started dealing with cherries, only high-end Chinese supermarkets sold them at very high prices,” Zhao recalls.

His goal was to convert the cherry from a luxury item into something more affordable for younger, middle-class consumers. He saw an opportunity: substituting higher-volume, cheaper and sweeter American cherries for the local Chinese variety. He approached Wang Miao who ran the American Cherry Association in China, a body charged with boosting sales. The American cherries were soon rebranded as ‘Chelizi’ to distinguish them from the Chinese name for the fruit (Yingtao), and US farmers committed to greater supply at lower prices.

Coincidentally, incoming US ambassador Gary Locke had been governor of a state that was a big cherry producer. Zhao thought Locke – who’d proven popular with Chinese netizens for carrying his own bags and buying his own coffee – would be a great salesman for US cherry sales too. So in 2013 the ‘Locke Selling Cherry Nationwide’ event was born, promoted by Fruit Day but also by Walmart and Tmall. During the sales blitz, Locke went to shops to plug the fruit with the message, “These are cherries from my hometown. I hope everyone will like them.”

Special promotional pricing “all of a sudden made cherries popular in China,” comments 21CN. Fruit Day sold 168 tonnes of the fruit online in a single week (the equivalent to a medium-sized supermarket’s sales over five years).

Last year China imported 2 million boxes of the American fruit. A decade ago – when Wang joined the American Cherry Association – the figure was just 30,000 boxes annually. Fruit Day has been a beneficiary of the surge and has received a $70 million investment from e-commerce giant this year.

However, while Fruit Day continues to fly American cherries daily into its Shanghai hub, Zhao says he has diversified, as a poor Californian harvest can severely dent his supplies. Last year, his imports of Chilean cherries were a big seller in China too. Indeed, as annual demand grows – a phenomenon also seen with avocados in China (see WiC276) – other countries are looking to increase cherry sales.

“Places like New Zealand and Tasmania are sending their best cherries to mainland China nowadays,” asserts Zhao. “China is slowly becoming their biggest export market.”

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