Room for Berry Category Growth

California Strawberries

Category experts offer suggestive-selling techniques for retailers to move the berry category upward.

Berry DisplayNutritious, delicious and bountiful. Berries check all the boxes for what consumers look for in fresh fruit. In fact, the collective category of strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries were Number One in fruit in terms of dollar sales last year, according to the 2016 Year-End Fresh Produce Review, produced by Bakersfield, CA-based Gruszka Consulting from FreshLook Marketing/Information Resources multi-outlet data ending Dec. 25, 2016.

“Customers cannot get enough berries,” says Jay Schneider, produce director at Acme Markets, a 179-store chain headquartered in Malvern, PA, which is part of the 2,200-plus Albertsons family of banners. “Berries are a big sales driver in our stores.”

What’s more, there’s no sign to date of the berry boom slowing, as the category grew 8.8 percent in dollar sales in 2016 compared to the previous year.

“There is still a growing market for berries because of their appeal to so many consumer segments,” says Jim Grabowski, merchandising manager for Well-Pict Berries, headquartered in Watsonville, CA. “Moving forward, we will probably see strawberries level off a bit and more of an uptick in the other three primary berries: blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries.”

Ed Osowski, director of produce and floral for Martin’s Super Markets, a 22-store chain based in Sound Bend, IN, agrees. “Strawberries were once the primary driver. Now, the other berries are also helping to drive sales and it’s expanded the category.”

Berries represented 8.6 percent of produce department dollars during the 52-weeks ending Nov. 26, 2016, according to Chicago-based market research firm Nielsen Perishables Group. Of this, strawberries made up the majority at 48.4 percent of berry category sales.

“Consumer demand remains strong for strawberries,” says Christine Christian, senior vice president for the California Strawberry Commission (CSC), in Watsonville, CA. “In 2016, California production levels were among the highest on record for both yield per acre and total volume, with record fresh production of more than 196 million trays. For 2017, California continues as the leading fresh strawberry production region in the world, and is expected to supply more than 79 percent of the volume consumed in the United States.”

Strawberry growth in the U.S. market has averaged 2 percent annually since 2011, according to Kevin Zangs, category manager for sourcing at Robinson Fresh, headquartered in Eden Prairie, MN. “Under this same timeline, blueberries have grown at a rate of 3 percent, raspberries at 14 percent and blackberries at 8 percent annually, surpassing overall market growth rates, showing there is still room for expansion.”

Looked at another way, strawberries have reached a solid household penetration of 71 percent — or consumed by two of three households in the nation — according to Frances Dillard, director of marketing and global brand lead for Watsonville, CA-based Driscoll’s. “However, raspberries have only 30 percent of household penetration and blackberries only 24 percent.”

Blueberries constituted 26.5 percent of berry category dollars during the 52-weeks ending Nov. 26, 2016, according to Nielsen Perishables Group data. “Research indicates blueberries have not yet reached market saturation, and they are the only top fruit to expect increased consumption in the next year,” says Mark Villata, executive director of the Folsom, CA-based U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council (USHBC), citing the organization’s July 2016 released Opportunities Assessment Study conducted by SMS Research on behalf of the council. “We’ve identified several segments of blueberry users and are targeting moderate users as the audience with the greatest potential to grow blueberry demand in the next five years. This audience spans all ages, ethnicities and household incomes, and are united by their health-conscious attitudes and love of fruit.”

Raspberries and blackberries, respectively, represented 15.2 percent and 9.0 percent of berry category dollars, according to Nielsen Perishables Group data for the 52 weeks ending Nov. 26, 2016.

“Another real growth point for berries is organic,” says Martin’s Super Markets’ Osowski. Eleven percent of total berry category sales are organic, according to Nielsen Perishables Group statistics for the year ending Nov. 26, 2016. Of this, strawberries represent 40.6 percent, followed by blueberries at 26.9 percent, raspberries at 20.6 percent and blackberries at 11.4 percent.

“While organic berries are a smaller part of the berry category, they are showing faster double-digit growth,” says Driscoll’s Dillard. Driscoll’s makes the claim of market leader in organic berries with 60 percent market share.Acme Markets’ Schneider agrees. “The organic customers are different on price points. They will buy regardless, while the conventional shopper might not if prices run high at times.”

When it comes to conventional versus organic, conventional is more likely to have larger pack sizes while organic is sold in smaller sizes — primarily because conventional takes less resources and costs less to produce. “If price points are close enough, consumers often will go to organic. The reverse is also true: if organic is too expensive, consumers will go to conventional. No matter the price, organic berry growth has been tremendous. Organic raspberries have grown 13 percent and blackberries have grown at 40 percent year over year,” says Robinson Fresh’s Zangs.

Year-round availability is why berries are a leading category within the produce department, says Cindy Jewell, vice president of marketing for California Giant Berry Farms in Watsonville, CA. “Each berry type has peak seasons during the year and gaps in production, which is one more reason to promote the whole category together in the department and adjust the space for each type within the overall display. For example, in the winter, strawberry volume is lower without the power of California, which peaks later in the year. However, we have strong volume of blueberries from South America.”

Here are some suggestive selling techniques retailers can use to move the berry category upward.

Encourage A Berry Buffet

The excellent news about the lucrative berry category is that there isn’t necessarily cannibalization of one berry over the other, says the USHBC’s Villata. “Consumers often buy multiple types of berries. For example, 90 percent of blueberry purchasers say they often buy strawberries as well, according to our Opportunities Assessment Study.”

This is because all four major berries have their own distinctive markets and there is room for all four in the market basket, says Well-Pict’s Grabowski. “For example, a consumer could buy strawberries to eat out of hand, blueberries for topping breakfast cereal and raspberries for a salad and blackberries to make a dessert.”

Jewell believes retailers recognize berries as a destination category and are doing an excellent job promoting the category, and really dedicating display space well, featuring each berry within the space. “As volume fluctuates for each berry type, retailers are able to maintain specific space for the overall category while shifting individual berry types within this space. This provides consistency for the shopper that looks for that berry display in the produce department and keeps berries in the basket,” she says.

“I like to do mix-and-match ads with two to three varieties and at times run all four berries on a front feature table. In between, I will run hot buys on 2-pound strawberries…”

— Jay Schneider, Acme Markets

Retailers routinely promote all berry segments together to drive produce department sales and minimize cannibalization and shrink.

“I like to do mix-and-match ads with two to three varieties and at times run all four berries on a front feature table. In between, I will run hot buys on 2-pound strawberries and get added sales lift to the category along with 18-ounce blueberries,” says Acme Markets’ Schneider.

Market to Kids

Research shows 51 percent of families with kids purchase blueberries. “Shoppers with three or more kids purchase at the highest level. That tells me kids love berries,” says Jewell.

According to Karen Brux, managing director for North America of the San Carlos, CA-based Chilean Fresh Fruit Association, Blueberries from Chile is working with retailers to get their youngest shoppers excited about the fruit. “The organization is a key sponsor of the new kid’s club, ‘Miguelitos Cocina Club,’ at Northgate Markets in Southern California. Along with a national yogurt and cereal brand, Blueberries from Chile took part in 40 kids cooking classes that took place over a four-week week period in January and February. The featured recipe, Blueberry Swirl, encouraged kids to have fun with their food and learn how great healthy foods can taste. The Chilean Blueberry Committee even brought in its very own blueberry representative for some of the classes and handed out special blueberry-themed activity and recipe sheets to all club members.”

The Florida Strawberry Growers Association (FSGA) captures kids’ imagination for the state’s popular red berry with its mascot, Jammer.

“We’ve taken Jammer into retailers and hosted children from nearby schools in the produce department,” says Sue Harrell, director of marketing for the Plant City, FL-based FSGA. “The children love the ‘Did You Know’ facts. We make it fun and educational. After all, they are our future consumers.”

Beyond this, research shows favorite characters have a tremendous influence on acceptance and behavior among children, says CarrieAnn Arias, vice president of marketing for Dole Fresh Vegetables, headquartered in Monterey, CA. “The best way for retailers to boost sales of Dole-brand berries to kids and families is to leverage the company’s recently announced nutritional alliance with Disney Consumer Products and Interactive Media (DCPI). This partnership includes the launch of a new co-branded assortment of Dole fresh produce featuring iconic Disney, Pixar, Star Wars and Marvel characters at grocery and retail stores nationwide throughout 2017 and beyond.”

Health-Minded Appeal

Berries have long been marketed as “superfoods.”

“Retailers can market the science-based good news stories about berries to encourage sales and maintain market growth,” suggests Carla Ginobili, manager of the Argentinean Blueberry Committee, based in Buenos Aires. “Inform consumers of the health claims of each berry and give them usage ideas and recipes.”

Health was the January focus of a new social media campaign launched by Plant City, FL-based, Wish Farms. Life is Sweet is a two-year campaign that features monthly themes, such as January’s “Sweet Start” with corresponding recipes, nutrition information, cooking videos, sweepstakes and more.

With 95 percent of food retailers employing dietitians, these trusted nutrition advisors are a key focus of Chilean Fresh Fruit Association’s marketing programs for Chilean blueberries. “Chilean blueberry merchandisers in the United States and Canada have built strong relationships with both in-store and corporate dietitians, sending them material that they can use both online and in-store,” says Brux.

The California Strawberry Commission offers retailers access to its new online Retail Dietitian Toolkit, which is chock full of strawberry health information, recipes, sound bites and social media ideas for every month.

Reach Out to Millenials

Moms between the ages of 20 and 40 (Millennials and Gen-X) are strawberries’ target consumers, says the CSC’s Christian. “They predominantly make food/meal decisions for their family and rely on social media for recipes and health-related information.”

According to the report, U.S. Grocery Shopping Trends, 2016, prepared by the Bellevue, WA-headquartered Hartmann Group and published by the Arlington, VA-based Food Marketing Institute, Millennials are indeed most likely to engage with retailers using social media or other digital tools.

“The specific attributes these younger consumers want in their food — freshness; transparency; convenience; an emphasis on healthy, simple ingredients; a growing preference for ethnic cuisines; and a desire for spices and seasoning — dictates the stores they choose and how they shop them,” says Arias.

Suggest 24/7 Versatility

“All Day. Any Way.” This is the message Blueberries from Chile is communicating about the versatility of berries in its point-of-sale materials. “We work with retailers on numerous cross-merchandising promotions showcasing how blueberries can be incorporated into breakfast, lunch, dinner, desserts, snacks and beverages in easy, tasty recipes,” says Brux.

The USHBC’s Villata recommends stressing the benefit of adding instant flavor and easy nutrition in recipe suggestions that capture consumer’s interest by tying into lifestyle trends. “For example, present consumers with a one-stop area for various supplies, pairing blueberries with other year-round activity staples and food items such as snack-sized plastic ware for on-the-go snacking at sporting/tailgating events; mason jars for making jam and chutney; popsicle molds for homemade fruit pops; and grilling and outdoor dining supplies to inspire cookouts.”

Retailers can strategically merchandise each berry based on when and how it’s eaten. For example, according to Robinson Fresh’s Zangs, who compiled these insights from data contained in What We Eat in America, DHHS-USDA Dietary Survey Integration for the years 2003-2010, while most fruit are consumed fairly consistently throughout the day and most heavily over lunch, strawberries see an uptick in eating occasions at all meals. Blueberries, eaten 40 percent of the time as is, are frequently eaten at lunch for an afternoon snack and at dinner. Raspberry peak eating time is breakfast, late afternoon and evening.

Unifying for all berries, says Zangs, “Snacking is the Number One eat­ing occasion, and eating alone is on the rise, both of which are driving a need for smaller portions.”

To meet snack demand, Dole launched its Dole GO Berries! in mid-February in select regions with national rollout later this year. “Exclusive to Dole, our proprietary snack packs feature three snap-off clamshells, each containing four ounces of fresh strawberries. The clamshells are ventilated for freshness and easy rinsing. Just ‘Snap, Rinse and Go!’” says Arias.

Celebrate With Berries

Valentine’s Day is one of the biggest times of the year for strawberry promotion at Acme Super Markets. “We equip our stores with a chocolate fountain for sampling chocolate covered strawberries. It has developed into extra sales dollars in the past few years.”

There are four key holidays for strawberries, all occurring during California’s peak season, according to the CSC’s Christian. “These are Easter, Mother’s Day, Memorial Day and July 4th. During these holidays, create a berry category destination set. Include complementary items such as crepes, dessert shells, angel food cakes, whipped cream, yogurt and granola to drive additional impulse purchases. Secondary displays in bakery, dairy, cereal aisles and salad bars will also drive incremental sales. Promote during pre-holiday, holiday and post-holiday weeks to maximize sales. Retailers following a holiday three-week promotional strategy can expect superior results.”

“Secondary displays in bakery, dairy, cereal aisles and salad bars will also drive incremental sales. Promote during pre-holiday, holiday and post-holiday weeks to maximize sales.”

— Christine Christian, California Strawberry Commission

In addition, Driscoll’s Dillard says, “There’s a great opportunity to incorporate raspberries into the Thanksgiving holiday celebration. Consumers have also been adding blackberries into their December holiday planning with supply being more consistent.”

Aligning sales activity around holidays is helpful, but so is making sure to promote berries when there are heavy crop times. “June is heavy crop time. There is a lot of fruit and lower demands. Making sure to follow-up after the holidays is important too, because the supply will be available,” says Zangs.

Hit Home With Local

More retailers are showcasing their relationships and connections to the farmer and the land the berries are grown on, says the Florida Strawberry Growers Association’s Harrell. “This includes television and print ads, as well as in-store photos and stories of our Florida berry farmers themselves.”

“Due to the inherent volatility of berries, we believe there are many opportunities to find acreage and areas in the United States that can support local retail needs,” says Zangs. “In our experience, consumers identify well with locally grown berries; and we have a team dedicated to farm and grower development.”

Rather than locally grown, California Giant is focused on helping its consumer followers know the farmers. “Maybe we are not all local, but we are family farmers and we want to be able to connect with the folks eating our berries via some of the multi-generational family stories of our growers,” says Jewell.

It’s All About Flavor

According to Jim Roberts, vice president of sales at Naturipe Farms in Naples, FL, health attributes attract consumers to berries, but “it’s taste that keeps them coming back to buy.”

Ed Osowski, director of produce and floral for Martin’s Super Markets, a 22-store chain based in Sound Bend, IN, agrees. “Flavor is much better in berries today, and this continues to drive more shoppers into the category.”

Berry varieties cultivated by major growers are a combination of university or public and proprietary breeding programs. “The University of Florida has done a good job of identifying key traits and naturally selecting specific genetic markers, stacking the deck if you will, rather than randomly cross-breeding, that is rapidly bringing new strawberry varieties to market,” says Gary Wishnatzki, president and chief executive of Wish Farms in Plant City, FL. “One of these is the Sweet Sensation. It’s flavorful, is good size, holds its sugar well and has a consistent conical shape. We’ve planted about 50 percent of our crop with this variety this year.”

California growers have several strawberry varieties in commercial production, including the Monterey, San Andreas, Portola and Albion, each with its own characteristics, advantages and harvest time. “University of California varieties make up 53 percent of the total state acreage. Many farms in California grow proprietary varieties, developed by individual companies. Proprietary varieties represent 43 percent of the state’s acreage,” says Christine Christian, senior vice president for the California Strawberry Commission (CSC) in Watsonville, CA.

On the proprietary front, Watsonville, CA-headquartered Driscoll’s boasts a dedicated team of agronomists, breeders, sensory analysts and plant pathologists to naturally breed exclusive varieties that are then grown on independent family farms. Offerings include long stem strawberries for special celebrations, a jumbo blueberry for a bigger flavor pop, both Sunshine and Golden raspberries that are sweeter than traditional red with tropical taste nuances, and blackberries with a larger berry size and an exceptional flavor.

Growers agree the berry category isn’t going the way of apples with customers buying based on varietal name since some improved varieties can look very similar to their previous counterparts. This means retailers need to creatively acquaint customers with the “what’s new” in these updated varieties.

“We push flavor by sampling in-store. We do this, for example, when Driscoll’s Season’s Finest blackberries are available. Kids especially like these and ask their parents to buy. We see sales increase exponentially as a result,” says Osowski.