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Chiquita Transitioning To Consumer Products Image

To move beyond its image as a banana grower and into one as a consumer products company, Chiquita has started a rewards program with online auctions for customers.

CINCINNATI (AP) -- Chiquita Brands International Inc. wants to move beyond its image as a banana grower and into one as a consumer products company.

The Cincinnati-based company has started a rewards program with online auctions for customers called Fresh Funds, offering customer rewards through a point system.

The points are printed on the company's specially marked Fresh Express prepackaged salads and on Chiquita-branded fruit and vegetable snacks.

Customers collect points with their purchases of the items. They can use the points to bid in online auctions for items such as a Nintendo Wii exercise game, or they can donate their points to charity. The auctions are held weekly and offer different items each week.

"This program is consistent with our goal of becoming a more consumer-focused company," Chiquita spokesman Bryan Brown said Tuesday. "It's a customer-relationship marketing program to connect shoppers with our Chiquita and Fresh Express brands and draw them to the produce aisle."

Another goal is to encourage a healthy lifestyle habit of eating fresh fruits and vegetables, Brown said.

Fernando Aguirre, Chiquita's chairman and chief executive, told shareholders at their annual meeting in May that the company is focusing on developing more products to take advantage of consumers' needs and their growing interest in healthier foods.

Chiquita, with a long history as a banana grower and distributor stretching back more than 100 years, is best-known for bananas. But the company has been extending its brand to a variety of fruit and vegetable products.

The company launched a new fresh-cut fruit business in 2003 and acquired Fresh Express, a seller of packaged salads, in 2005. Last year, Chiquita acquired Verdelli Farms, a regional processor of salads, vegetables and fruit snacks.

Last week, Chiquita said it has formed a joint venture with Haitong Food Group Co. Ltd for the processing, sale and marketing of fresh produce in China -- the company's first entry into the Chinese market. The company will market and sell such offerings as fresh packaged salads, fresh cut fruits and vegetables and fresh chilled beverages in China.

The Fresh Funds program currently does not include bananas, but Brown said the program would be monitored to determine future decisions.

Fresh Funds points on eligible products are in increments of 10, 20 and 40. Customers wanting to participate need to create accounts and unique log-ins on Chiquita's Fresh Funds Web site to register their points. They can either bid on items after registering or donate the points to Susan G. Komen for the Cure or the American Cancer Society's Relay For Life. The charities receive $1 for each 100 points donated.

A marketing initiative aimed at drawing people to prepackaged salads and fruit and vegetable snack items should garner interest, since consumers generally like new versions of categories they already know, said Harry Balzer, vice president of consumer research firm NPD Group.

"You can get consumers on the new and contemporary versions of your marketing programs," he said. "But the real staying power will be whether you deliver on making their lives easier and cheaper."

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