Berries From Afar

Ripe Blueberries

Imported product ensures year-round customer satisfaction.

Farm to Table DisplayAs important as the locally grown movement has become to retail produce, year-round consumer demand requires the importation of berries into the United States. By capitalizing on the efforts of importers and marketers as well as the fruit’s well-known health benefits, retailers can keep berries moving out of bins and into baskets 365 days a year.

Point Of Origin

The average consumer may not give much thought as to where their off-season berry varieties are sourced, but they travel from both North and South American growers. “Chile is a major supplier,” says Mark Villata, executive director for the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, based in Folsom, CA.

“Argentina is as well, Peru is coming on, and Uruguay is also an importer,” says Villata. “We’re seeing more imports year-to-year from those South American countries. The winter market increased with volumes, and it’s been a good thing, because it makes blueberries now a year-round fresh option for folks here.”

Karen Brux, managing director North America for the Chilean Fresh Fruit Association, headquartered in Santiago, Chile, backs this statement with numbers. “Chile exported 32.7 million boxes (91,038 tons) of fresh blueberries during the 2015/16 season,” says Brux. “Market share of the U.S. and Canada grew from 67 percent in season 2014/2015 to 69 percent in 2015/16.”

While origin may not be a consideration, quality is something that will always matter. “I’d say the consumers have a general idea that berries aren’t being grown locally, and that the available berries are imported.” says Matt Curry, president of Curry and Company, based in Brooks, OR.

“We found consumers simply prefer nice quality berries and will gravitate to the best product they’re seeing. We don’t think they’re looking for a particular country, unless the quality is exceptional and they say, “Wow, these Chilean berries are great this year, I need to go get more.”

Brux recognizes this as well. “I believe when a consumer picks up a container of blueberries, they are looking first and foremost at the quality of the blueberries inside: large, firm berries with a consistent deep blue color. That being said, if there’s a strong story to communicate about the grower or origin of the berries, that’s another strong selling point.”

Clay Wittmeyer, director of international sales for Naturipe LLC, based in Salinas, CA, thinks origin matters. “We included the Canadian flag on our label for shipments coming from British Columbia for sales distribution both in the U.S., Canada, and into export markets,” says Wittmeyer.

“With our imports from Chile, which make up a substantial volume of our fresh blueberry distribution in the winter months, we clearly state the origin of the product.”

Craig Casca is a 50 percent owner and vice president for Red Blossom Sales, Inc., headquartered in Los Olivos, CA. He stresses the importance of the certificate of origin label (COOL) for consumers when choosing berries.

“It is important that COOL is always known for the consumer. They want to know where the product is sourced, and consumers should be informed at all times.”

Berry Varieties

For Chilean blueberry exports, North America continues to be the primary destination. According to Brux, the volume shipped to this Splendor Brand Blackberriesmarket continues to grow year-on-year. “In 2015/16, North America received 69 percent of all exports,” says Brux.

“While total exports decreased from 92,089 tons to 91,038, due to weather conditions, and volume to East Asia and Europe fell by 7 and 14 percent, respectively, volume to North America increased by 3 percent.”

The fact the market went up in what was overall a down year reflects the strong demand for fresh blueberries in winter. “Fresh blueberries are no longer a seasonal item,” says Brux. “Consumers just can’t get enough of them, and retailers know that.”

“Naturipe imports fresh blueberries from Peru, Chile, Argentina, and Mexico,” says Wittmeyer. “We also import fresh blackberries from Guatemala. The primary source of our blueberry production is from our farms located in most districts of Chile.” Naturipe turns south to ranches in Mexico for imports of fresh strawberries during the winter months.

“There is growing consumption of nearly all berries worldwide including blueberries and blackberries,” says Tom Richardson, vice president global development for the Giumarra Companies, based in Los Angeles.

“There are many factors related to this growth. The high antioxidants in berries are an important aid to good health. Due to greater production in increasing geographic areas, a more consistent supply of berries facilitating growth and varietal development is giving us more good eating experiences.”

For strawberries, Mexico is ready and able to provide U.S. consumers with fruit that lasts from October to March. “Mexico is filling the hole left from the acreage decreasing in Oxnard, CA, over the past four years,” says Casca of Red Blossom. “Because Mexico grows under hoops, retailers can count on excellent quality and supply during the winter now.”

Mexico also produces high-quality blackberries from October through May. “Volume is very good, which means the retailers can run ads anytime they wish and get a great quality product in stores.”

Consumption Trends

Berry sales certainly increased due to the health halo, but availability helps bolster those numbers and keeps them steady. As Naturipe’s Wittmeyer explains, “I think the growing year-round supply and availability contributed to the increased consumption of fresh berries. Naturipe Farms offers a continuous supply: six months of the year from North America, and six months of the year from South America. Our domestic chain store buyers appreciate the continuity of supply in keeping this superfood on the shelves all year.”

While blueberries gained in popularity and sales in recent years, they aren’t the only fruit with great berry appeal. Consumers are spreading the love. “We are seeing growth in all four berry categories,” says Wittmeyer.

As an example, he references research on growth from Chicago-based IRI: strawberries – 3 percent, blueberries – 7 percent, raspberries – 9 percent, and blackberries – 17 percent, which is based on the 52-week ending June 12, 2016 FreshLook Marketing, Multi-Outlet (or MULO: Multi-outlet reporting includes an aggregation of the grocery, mass, club, drug, dollar and military channels).

“Given many consumer choices at the fresh produce department, berries are the bright spot in a healthy diet,” says Wittmeyer.

Curry of Curry and Company has also seen strong numbers. “Currently all imported berries are growing in consumption, and it continues the trend of overall berry growth. Our small, but growing Mexican blackberry program has had strong demand in late spring, and part of this growth is fueled by the continued popularity of organics.”

Marketing And Promotion

“Red Blossom coordinates very closely with our customers to ensure they know when volume is peaking for ads and when volume is waning, and to stay out of trouble.” says Casca. “Our goal is to help the retailers be set up when the volume hits, so they can run great promotions and move the volume.”

For Naturipe, larger packaging sizes drive sales. “We found that a move to a larger pack size increased sales and overall volume, not to mention the efficiency of distribution,” explains Wittmeyer.

He also believes shelf space is a good way to increase sales. “We found that some out-of-country retailers have very little shelf space allocated for berries; however, when the consumers can see more fruit, they end up taking more home, and retailers see a spike in sales.”

Brux points out there are many effective merchandising and marketing tactics produce executives can use for both in-store and online promotions. “Our retail partners are the most successful when they run an integrated campaign with online and offline components,” she says. “For instance, they might cross-merchandise Chilean blueberries with pancake mix for National Blueberry Pancake Day (January 28); hold demos where they hand out blueberry pancake samples; announce the demo dates/times on their Facebook page; and also run a contest where their shoppers can win a pancake griddle.”

Mike Parr, president and chief executive of Team Produce International, headquartered in Miami, likes what he saw from retailers when it comes to displays and promotions of berries.

“What I see Southeast retailers doing, which is what I recommend, is tying the berries together. You’re mixing and matching, so the consumer has a choice of taking two blueberries or one blue, one raspberry, two for five or three for five — if they can mix and match, that gives the consumer a better variety at the same price point. Once people are buying one berry, often times they’ll buy different berries to complement desserts.”

Wittmeyer recommends highlighting berries as recipe ingredients for compotes, glazes or toppings on meat dishes and pizza. “By presenting the versatility of berries and encouraging out-of-the-box uses, it’s a good way to promote usage.”

Special Eating Occasions

With imported berries available in the winter, seasonal holidays present sales opportunities. In addition to the holidays, retailers should not forget the football tailgating season.

Villata at the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council sees these as great opportunities for promotion, noting, “One thing we’re seeing as a way to promote year-round consumption is marketing them with other products like Mason jars for folks who are thinking about making jam or chutney. You can team them up with plasticware and other things that folks are using for tailgate parties. That works in the fall for football.” He also recommends pairings with yogurt, smoothies and hot cereals like oatmeal.

Brux sees the start of a new year as a great time to focus on healthy eating. “The heart-healthy properties of blueberries can be promoted during February, which is home to both American Heart Month and Valentine’s Day.”

“Thanksgiving, Christmas and Valentine’s are obvious,” says Luciano Fiszman, vice president of blueberry procurement for Gourmet Trading Company, headquartered in Redondo Beach, CA. “However, what hasn’t been explored deep enough yet has been school meals for children. Retailers, and the market in general, should focus on this and sales will jump through the roof. There won’t be enough fruit once this kind of healthy promotion takes place. Some great times to promote are when kids go back to school in September, after Christmas, New Year’s break or spring break.”

Promote or Perish

Berries DisplayThe high perishability of berries can give retailers and consumers pause, but growers and importers have faith retailers are up to the task of keeping stock rotated and fresh.

Mark Villata, executive director for the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, based in Folsom, CA, readily acknowledges: “I think they (retailers) do a good job already. One thing we’ve seen a couple of retailers do as far as cross-promoting is use small, rolling refrigerated cases as a secondary display and move the unit to the cereal area or with yogurt.”

These mobile refrigerated cases allow for increased visibility of berries while addressing perishability concerns.

Matt Curry, president of Curry and Company, based in Brooks, OR, sees success with proper displays as well.

“When retailers know they have the right price and the right quality, and that the fruit is moving quickly, it is okay to make a large display outside of the coolers,” he says.

“Berries have a longer shelf life when they’re cool of course, but during the peak of the season, you need large displays to get through the volume, and there often isn’t enough space in the refrigerated coolers.”

Curry recommends retailers get their teams ready to keep up with proper berry rotation. “Berries are one of the leading impulse buys, so setting up a secondary display in the department is another successful way to move more berries.”

For Luciano Fiszman, vice president of blueberry procurement for Gourmet Trading Company, headquartered in Redondo Beach, CA, “Communication is key.”

Fiszman recommends retailers prepare and take advantage of peaks in production. “Understand when quality is excellent and when it is not due to weather conditions or any other factor that may affect shelf life. Rotation becomes imperative in crops like berries. Planning and cold chain are fundamentals of the business, however, everything starts with the way fruit is produced, and genetics.”

“Ordering product on a daily basis is always the best bet with delicate fruits like berries.” says Tom Richardson, vice president global development for the Giumarra Companies, based in Los Angeles. “Large displays front and center of the produce department are sure to catch the consumer’s eye and drive sales.”

“There is a well-known consumption increase of blues in general due to its fantastic health benefits as a superfruit,” says Manuela Leyba, commercial manager at EarlyCrop South America, based in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

“We do think it is a great idea to promote the health claims of fruit on the shelves, and of course, I think there is much more to be done. Getting more information is always good. We do know blueberries have a lot of phytonutrients which are good for our health.

“Having the highest antioxidant capacities among many fruits and vegetables is a great characteristic. I think retailers know how to market the ‘blues.’ Of course, we always suggest blues should be on refrigerated shelves, as eating them fresh is much more pleasant and tasty. In addition, what is being seen now is promoting the consumption of blues for snacking. It is a great idea and has important potential growth,” says Leyba.

For Karen Brux, managing director North America for the Chilean Fresh Fruit Association, headquartered in Santiago, Chile, creativity is key to promoting berries year-round.

“One of our customers built a blueberry display with a Willy Wonka theme — remember the girl who turned into a giant blueberry? She was floating above the display and little Oompa Loompas were marching around it. Definitely eye-catching, and it generated double digit sales increases.”

The Association also used short videos to drive sales. “We started producing 45 second usage videos last year, and retailers love them,” says Brux. “One of the largest nationwide retail chains posted one of our usage videos on their Facebook page and it generated more than 46,000 views in less than a day.”

This kind of out-of-the-bin thinking works, but so does focusing on the basics of cross-merchandising, recipe cards, holidays and other POS tools.

Curry also recommends produce managers get the most up-to-date information on all berry crops to fully capitalize on the popularity of berries year-round. He points out that, despite year-round availability, there are still peaks and valleys.

“During peak volume times, one of the best strategies is to carry multiple clamshell sizes, giving customers a choice between an 18-ounce and a pint-size container, for example. During the non-peak times, when availability is tight, you might only carry a 6-ounce clamshell. You need to have a plan that allows the capture of all possible sales during peak volumes and then adjust it for tighter times.”