A stroll through the basement-level food hall of any Japanese department store will uncover luxuriously gift-boxed fruit: From individually wrapped strawberries to perfectly spherical cantaloupes tucked into neat wooden boxes, the flawless specimens come with hefty price tags to match. It’s a departure from the scene at the typical American megamarket, where fruit priced by the pound is displayed in massive piles and finding an unbruised apple can be a chore.
Though fruit is a go-to for gift-giving occasions in Japan, in the U.S., it’s largely seen as a commodity — something to be tossed into a lunchbox or munched on while walking down the street, rather than lovingly placed into a box and tied with a bow. The exception to that rule may be Harry & David, the Oregon-based company that’s been making holiday deliveries of gold foil-wrapped pears to Americans’ doorsteps for more than eight decades.
Though it now hawks everything from cheesecakes to charcuterie, Harry & David’s signature offering from the very beginning has been its “Royal Riviera” pears, which the company touts as “so big and juicy, you eat them with a spoon,” a tagline that it trademarked in 2001. The pears are available in various sizes, from a smaller “snack size” to heftier versions weighing approximately a pound each, at an average price of $6 per pound (plus shipping, which is around $10 for a five-pound box). The average price for pears sold at major supermarkets as of December 2017 hovered around $1.25 per pound, according to the USDA.
“It’s a bit of the product, yes, but it’s also a lot of the nostalgia,” says Lauri Harrison, an adjunct professor of marketing at Columbia University’s School of Professional Studies, who believes much of Harry & David’s ability to charge higher prices for its fruit hinges on the brand’s legacy. “Where Harry & David has really been successful is in creating that emotional connection to their brand.”
Though mail-order fruit can now be had from numerous companies, Harry & David is the name that’s top of mind for most American consumers (not to mention the top Google search result). That likely has something to do with the fact that it was also the first: In 1914, after graduating from Cornell’s agriculture program, brothers Harry and David Rosenberg took over the family’s 200-acre southeast Oregon orchard following the death of their father. The brothers decided to specialize in a breed of pear that grew especially well in the Rogue River Valley; in a clever marketing move, they bestowed their pears with a luxurious-sounding name, “Royal Riviera.”
After the Great Depression hit, the Rosenbergs struggled to find enough local buyers to offload their fruit, so they cast a wider net: They managed to convince businessmen in San Francisco and Seattle that a gift box of perfectly ripe pears would make an ideal client gift, promising to deliver a parcel anywhere in the country for a mere $1.95. The idea caught on, and in 1934 they sent their first mailing to the list of customers they’d compiled, a precursor to the glossy catalogs that now pile up in mailboxes across America. After snagging a few big-wig corporate clients including executives from Chrysler and General Electric, the mail-order business was flourishing. Perhaps as skilled in marketing as they were in cultivating fruit, the brothers placed full-page ads for the company in magazines like Fortune, and launched a Fruit-of-the-Month Club, a concept that would go on to be imitated by countless others.
When the economy took a downward turn in 2008, many businesses cut out frivolities such as sending fancy fruit baskets to clients, and the company’s sales tumbled as it also faced growing competition from big-box stores and internet retailers. Harry & David filed for bankruptcy in 2011, and some feared that might be the end of its gold-wrapped pears — but after hiring a new head of marketing at the peak of its crisis, the company managed to turn things around, achieving double-digit growth just a couple years later. In 2014, gift e-tailer 1-800-Flowers swooped in to buy the company for $143 million, seemingly an ideal acquisition for a company that built its business delivering pricey floral arrangements and boxes of chocolate.
Now one of southern Oregon’s largest employers, with a staff of approximately 8,000 (albeit many of them seasonal) at its Medford headquarters, Harry & David’s orchards span more than 2,000 acres, and its product line has swelled to include candy, baked goods, and wine from its own vineyard, though the Royal Riviera pears remain its most popular offering. So how has Harry & David, which prior to its acquisition reported more than $400 million in annual sales, convinced so many people to fork over a relatively hefty sum for pears?
Harry & David’s so-called “Royal Riviera” pears are actually a variety called Doyenne du Comice. Comice, as they’re more typically referred to, are widely considered to be one of the best-tasting pear varieties. First cultivated in France in the 1840s, they were brought to southern Oregon in the 1870s by a French horticulturist who found that the region’s “rolling valleys and snow-capped mountains,” along with its warm days, cooler nights, and fertile soil, “reminded him of his own southern France,” according to the November 1946 issue of the erstwhile Gourmet magazine.
According to Dr. Stefano Musacchi, an associate professor of horticulture at Washington State University, Comice pears are indeed something special. “It’s a French variety, and one of the finest pears on the market that you can eat,” he says. “The flesh is wonderful because it’s melting and is aromatic, and very sweet.”
But he explains that Comice pears typically aren’t found in grocery stores because they require special handling. “These varieties have a skin that is so delicate,” he says. “The people that harvest these pears need to wear gloves and [use of a typical mechanized fruit packing line] is not the best way because it’s really sensitive to bruising.”
Though Harry & David’s shipping methods have certainly evolved since the company’s inception, it claims its harvesting techniques have changed little. In 1925, Harry and David “designed a pail that enabled workers to harvest with both hands, increasing productivity by 10 to 25 percent,” according to the company’s own biography, First Names in Gifting, and workers still use a similar pail to harvest the fruit by hand. Babying those pears apparently doesn’t stop there: The company claims the parking lot at their Oregon growing facility doesn’t have speed bumps, so as not to damage the fruit in transit, and they’re transported for packing via water flumes to further avoid bruising.
There are also other factors that likely contribute to pears that are pricier than the average grocery store specimens: Harry & David says only around 50 percent of its annual harvest meets its “gift standard”; the rest are sold to supermarkets, made into puree, or donated to charity. The company also says it only employs documented workers who are authorized to work in the U.S., standing in contrast to the fact that the U.S. agriculture industry is largely built on the backs of undocumented laborers; by some estimates, as much as 70 percent of American farm workers are undocumented, a practice which keeps wages — and therefore, produce prices — low.
But as with many luxury products, marketing also plays a large role: Harrison points to the retailer’s tradition of wrapping just one pear in each box in gold foil. The company says its founders began that tradition some eight decades ago to give an added touch of luxury to their gift boxes, and though some customers swear that the gold-wrapped pears are the best-tasting specimens in the box, that’s seemingly more of a psychosomatic effect than an actual fact.
“When I was a kid, if you got the pear that was wrapped in gold foil, then that was your special treat for the day,” Harrison says. “I think that’s where they’ve been really successful: From the box, to the gold wrap, to the customer service, they’re all about the experience, and I think that has carried through generation after generation.”
The nostalgia factor is also amped up by the pears’ link to the holiday season: Though pears of any breed are strongly associated with Christmas (think “partridge in a pear tree”), Comice in particular — which are in season from approximately September through January — are frequently referred to as the “Christmas pear,” a moniker owed in part to the fruit’s red-and-green color combination.
But Harry & David’s loyal clientele is aging — the company claims it has “tens of thousands of customers that have shopped with the brand for over 30 years” — meaning it needs to figure out how to target millennials if it hopes to continue growing its sales in the coming years. This year, the company announced it was undergoing a digital makeover ahead of the busy holiday season, updating its online store to be more easily navigable and adding support for Paypal and Apple Pay.
But merely offering more millennial-friendly payment options likely won’t be enough to reel in a new younger demographic, and aggressive email marketing probably isn’t going to do it, either: “Love your products, but just an FYI, since Monday you have sent me 16 email blasts, this is bordering on assault…” a Facebook follower recently wrote.
Interestingly, Musacchi also sees a generational divide when it comes to taste preferences for pears. “Generally speaking, the consumers of pears are people of older age, and they really like melting flesh [like the Comice],” he says. “The younger generation, what they are looking for is a product that’s more crunchy and can be eaten like an apple.”
Harrison believes one key to future success for Harry & David will be social media: “They have a new generation to appeal to and that’s going to take a big social media emphasis,” she says. Though the brand has nearly half a million Facebook fans, its Twitter and Instagram presences are still fledgling — which makes sense considering Facebook’s audience skews significantly older than the other platforms.
Harrison also thinks further humanizing the brand will be key to capturing a younger demographic, pointing to millennials’ love of all things “artisanal” and handmade. “Again, they want to continue to make that emotional connection to their brand. If they can emphasize the people that nurture the pears, hand-pick them, water them, pack them, ship them, get them to you — make it more human, because then it’s no longer a commodity product where it’s all about getting the cheapest price.”
Ultimately, though, Harrison says, “Getting a millennial to fork over 20 bucks for a couple of pears is going to be a tough sell.”
Whitney Filloon is Eater’s senior reporter.