Produce Business UK finds out what is driving the berry market in the UK – the jewel in the crown of the country’s fresh fruit production – as Kantar Worldpanel’s total fruit market figures reveal 31% growth for the four weeks ended October 11
Autumn is well and truly here in the UK, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t still plenty of the domestic crop of soft-fruit around. The Indian summer late in September and into early October extended availability of the polytunnel crop into October, and beyond that there is fruit from glasshouses deep into the autumn.
“Some 10% of the whole UK crop is under glass,” says Laurence Olins, chairman of British Summer Fruits, “and availability of glasshouse fruit continues until the end of November or early December.”
Strawberries, raspberries and blackberries can all be grown in glasshouses and this means the growing season can start earlier and finish later.
Sales this year have been running ahead of 2014 on the whole; making growers very content. Just five years ago, the industry was worth just over £600 million and that has grown steadily to the figures of £1 billion reported just last week.
Nick Marston, managing director of major marketing desk Berry Gardens explains: “Berries are doing really well with year round growth on all four main berry types.” He points to Kantar Worldpanel data to mid-September, which shows strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and blackberries all outstripping the overall fruit category in sales value increases. Strawberry values were up by 6%, raspberries by 20.4%, blueberries by 22.4% and blackberries by 12.2%. This compares to the rise fruit sales in general of +4.5%.
“Strawberries continue to show good year-on-year growth in spite of being a relatively mature product,” notes Marston. “Other highlights are great growth for raspberries and blueberries, driven by big steps forward in the quality of varieties now grown – for instance Driscoll’s Maravilla – and the improving availability of autumn and spring blueberries.”
Blackberries, meanwhile, have been putting in a strong showing after several seasons of an under par performance. “They are showing good growth after years of little growth as new generation varieties offering reliable sweet eating come into production,” says Marston. “Driscoll’s Victoria is a good example.”
Looking deeper into the figures, it is quite clearly the discounters that are growing the market. New customers are buying soft fruit at Aldi and Lidl with double-digit growth recorded in sales on both strawberries and raspberries.
But having a continual PR campaign with radio, press and social media going on “in the background”, as Olins puts it, certainly helps to keep berries at the front of shoppers’ minds. “There are a series of elements at play,” says Olins. “There is not one magic bullet, rather we have created a virtuous circle. We have better varieties with higher yields of sweeter strawberries and raspberries, so consumers are coming back for more, alongside a good quality public relations campaign with a consistent strong message.”
Like all good marques, UK soft fruit has its own unique selling point. “British strawberries are grown within the market,” points out Marston, “so the varieties we grow are juicier and more succulent compared with southern European varieties. Although these are much improved, they still do have to travel for between two and four days to get to the UK.”
This same journey advantage means that English and Scottish growers can pick their raspberries and blackberries when they are riper, compared with growers outside the UK market who have to pick in order to ship to the UK.
But the local card does not trump all others and despite the seeming omnipresence of the buy-local message, it is not as deep-seated a trend it seems, according to Olins.
“There are consumers who are concerned where their fruit comes from,” he says. “But they are not the majority. If you are a foodie from south-east England, then yes whether it’s local is important. However, for most consumers it’s about whether it’s fully available and delivers good quality and taste, not where it’s from.”
When it comes to availability, it’s the role of the retailers and their backing that Olins feels the sector needs to acknowledge. “We have the most amazing support from our supermarket clients,” he says. “They have full shelves of berries every day of the week and they have really latched onto the importance of the category.”
Of course it cuts both ways and the fact that growers are able to keep supermarkets supplied with varieties boasting longer shelf-life and better eating quality than ever before, gives the multiples and discounters alike even more confidence in the product.
Consumers are buying within the category more often, and with British Summer Fruits running the Seasonal Berries campaign year-round, a consistent message is getting through.
“Our challenge it to get people buying berries more often and we have created more occasions to buy and eat berries than five to 10 years ago and that has increased frequency of purchase too,” says Olins.
Indeed, consumers are now snacking on berries at work and putting the fruit on their cereals at breakfast. To that end, this season Berry Gardens introduced four-pot blueberry snack packs, mixed berry packs and £1 retail-shelf-ready berry packs.
So where next for British berries? Now that supplies are switching into imports, the UK sector is already looking ahead to next season.
“We plan for continued category growth next year, driven by the improving variety offer,” says Marston. “We also want to continue building reliable volume production all year, to get behind the big UK season PR campaign run by British Summer Fruits, and to emphasise the fact that berries are a great way to eat healthily and enjoy fruit at the same time.”
Olins is clear that the aim for the soft-fruit sector in the UK is to maximise its share of the consumer basket. He has his sights set on a 25% annualised share figure.
“We see our major competitors as being all other fruits,” he explains. “We represent over 20% of all the overall spend on fruit and in August that rose to 25%, so £1 of every £4 spent on fruit was spent on berries in August this year, plus bear in mind that during August we are 100% British in the category.”