Once confined to a small, well-defined marketplace in specific communities, gift fruit baskets have gone mainstream and taken advantage of the internet to expand demand nationwide
Long before Britain’s upmarket grocery retailers began to explore the notion of selling fresh produce as a healthier alternative to chocolate boxes, the nation’s Jewish and Asian communities had traditionally given fruit as gifts to mark festivals and family celebrations.
One of the first local businesses to recognise and benefit from this demand was Manchester-based GoGo Fruit Basket, whose owner Robert Carter saw within the specialist market potential for a new kind of fruit retailer.
“We used to be a mainly retail business and had a shop in quite a Jewish area of Manchester,” he explains. “During Jewish New Year and Passover, they would traditionally send fruit [to each other] and we used to get a lot of that business because our shop was in the area.”
With the advent of the World Wide Web as a viable business platform in the early 2000s and fielding several requests from members of the Jewish community to make fruit deliveries to London, Carter began to explore the concept of fruit baskets as an on-going concern.
An initial attempt in conjunction with a London-based collaborator – who Carter says proved to be unreliable – failed, but the Manchester company was so convinced of the viability of the business that it went solo, launching GoGo Fruit Basket online in 2003.
Of course, it was far from plain sailing and Carter says the firm had to experiment with long and short distance deliveries of different fruit packaging across the country to determine what combinations could be used to ensure products reached clients in optimum condition.
“Fruit needs to be packaged well for it to travel and because we were putting it in a gift basket we had to look at different types of shrink wrap, tissue paper and so on, and see how they would travel before we got it right,” he says.
Still based close to Manchester city centre, Carter says he has witnessed substantial growth in demand for fruit baskets over the past 12 years, taking them well beyond their traditional markets into areas of mainstream consumption.
The firm now has a broad spectrum of clients, taking in new mums, hospital patients, office and corporate deliveries (an area Carter says is seeing particular growth) through to pre-concert deliveries of fruit baskets to performers and bands.
Of course, this is all an additional income stream and the traditional sales avenues are still open, as Jewish holidays and Asian weddings remain fixtures on the fruit basket calendar.
Rather than expanding across the country, GoGo Fruit Basket’s co-owner says the company prefers to deal with orders in-house using overnight couriers. “We don’t do anything overseas, although we still get quite a bit of interest from abroad,” he says.
The story of the establishment of fellow Manchester-based fruit basket specialist Fruit-4U is very similar to that of its cross-city rival. Established in 2002 as a subsidiary of fruit wholesaler Set Produce, Fruit-4U was another pioneer in the UK’s fruit basket sector and was initially set up to cater for demand from local hotels.
Power of online
As with GoGo Fruit Basket, the expansion of Fruit-4U as an ongoing concern coincided with the development of online sales; a key factor in an initially regional business being able to broaden its reach nationwide.
As the company’s Ian Cheetham explains, the advent of commercial sales through the internet enabled Fruit-4U to make its fruit basket service available to potential customers across the UK, from the north of Scotland to Land’s End.
Cheetham says some of Fruit-4U’s best business has come from supplying fruit baskets to offices and hospitals, the latter case taking advantage of restrictions over gifts that can be delivered to patients. “Hospitals don’t allow flowers anymore, so that’s something we have been able to move into,” he says.
The company also maintains a steady business, supplying fruit baskets to Manchester’s Jewish and Christian communities.
However, the office and business-to-business markets have experienced particular growth during recent times, so much so that the firm has set up a Fruit2Office subsidiary.
Working from its warehouse in Stockport, Fruit-4U’s baskets use staples such as apples, pears, oranges and bananas as their base, before adding seasonal fruits or bespoke orders – all sourced from agents in Spain or the Netherlands, or direct from growers.
Although Cheetham says the company has experienced its share of highs and lows – “some months sales go down, other months sales go up,” he says – what has been a constant is that the business has consistently grown each year since it was established.
Of course, demand for fruit baskets is not just limited to the North West, as Les Mulato, co-owner of thriving London-based fruit basket specialist Fruit4London would no doubt testify.
Originally from Hungary, Mulato set-up Fruit4London is 2008 after working in a St John’s Wood shop where he learned the ‘tricks of the trade’ when it came to fruit baskets. “A friend of mine came over to the UK and we decided to set up our business – if we can do it for someone else, why not do it for ourselves?” says Mulato.
Seven years later and Mulato says a combination of good luck and good business decisions, aided by an increasing public awareness of the importance of healthy eating, has helped turn Fruit4London into a successful ongoing venture.
Primarily catering for offices, Fruit4London’s co-founder says that although fruit baskets remain “a bit of a luxury”, demand has risen steadily since the company was founded and new customers are being added every week.
“Healthy eating is a pretty big topic at the moment, so there is an interest in and a demand for fresh fruit baskets and it is growing,” Mulato adds.