No abating for billion-pound berry bonanza
The arrival of jumbo-sized Victoria blackberries has been a game-changer for the sector

No abating for billion-pound berry bonanza

Rachel Anderson
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Berry Gardens - family value pack
A 1.1kg pack gives customers better value

Given that the value of the UK’s burgeoning berry market has gone past the £1billion mark, it would be easy for buyers to assume that this sector has reached its peak. However, as continuous new product development by Berry Gardens suggests, this particular fresh produce success story has many new chapters in store 

Wow factor 

This June, the Taste of London Festival in Regent’s Park saw thousands of its visitors flock to the Berry Gardens stand to sample a sumptuous British strawberry. Alistair Brooks, chairman of Berry Gardens Growers, says: “Our stand was so popular it was often five people deep wanting to try a free strawberry. It just goes to show that strawberries are really loved by the British public.”

Data from analyst Kantar Worldpanel (for 52 weeks prior to week ending June 19, 2016) certainly suggests that this is the case as strawberries as a category was valued at £568 million (+11.8% year on year). Meanwhile, the overall berry market was worth £1.135billion; a 17.7% year-on-year growth in value. The Berry Gardens team estimates that some 70% of this is made up of UK-grown fruit, and the firm’s managing director Nick Marston predicts that: “this double digit, annual growth for the berry category will continue for as far forward as I can see.”

Brooks, who grows soft fruit on his Langdon Manor Farm in Kent, suggests that much of the berry category’s success is down to the fact that British summer fruits have “the wow factor. We are the luckiest people in the world,” he asserts. However, as fresh-produce buyers know, a good product alone is not enough. For this reason, Berry Gardens – which has an exclusive agreement with breeder Driscolls – is continually keeping up with the latest consumer trends and behaviours and improving its offering. “Little steps in loads of different areas add up to a significance difference,” explains Marston.

Going bananas for strawberries and raspberries

One such “little step” is this season’s increased supply of the premium Driscoll’s Elizabeth June-bearer strawberry. Marston says: “This variety enables us to extend the season.” He adds that Elizabeth also complements the Driscoll’s Jubilee everbearers under the Jubilee Selections banner – thereby increasing and extending the availability of top-tier products for customers. “We position Elizabeth in the premium end [of the market] so we certainly want to maximise our sales in that area.” He also reveals that, even though the strawberry market is relatively mature, penetration and frequency of purchase have increased from 76.7% to 78.8% year on year and 12.1 times to 13.5 times a year respectively. “Only bananas are higher,” says Marston.  Jacqui Green, Berry Gardens’ sales and procurement director, notes that: “We are seeing substantial growth where people are switching from the likes of apples, bananas, and hard citrus fruits into berries.”

To this end, raspberries have also enjoyed growth, with penetration up just below 2% to 39.5% and frequency of purchase from eight times to 9.2 times a year. Marston says: “The raspberry market continues to offer significant room for growth and the quality of varieties such as Driscoll’s Maravilla and Driscoll’s Riviera are driving the market.”

The big blue 

According to Kantar data, blueberry sales grew by an impressive 26.7% (during the 52 weeks prior to June 19, 2016) to a value of £295m. In fact, blueberries have become the berry product with the fastest-growing sales. Brooks says: “We have produced and sold 60% more blueberries this year than last year.” He explains that this is largely due to the fact that Berry Gardens can now produce these little blue gems from early June right the way through to November. “There’s a whole generation of new varieties that is giving us better sizes and flavours that have now become the consistent trend in terms of flavour and quality,” says Brooks. “The development of the Driscoll’s varieties Sweet Jane and Barbara Ann continues and we should have commercial volumes of new, great tasting blueberries available next year.”

Sweet blackberries – huge opportunity for year-round growth

Perhaps the most noticeable change to the British summer fruits market has been the arrival of the “jumbo”-sized and sweet-tasting Driscoll’s Victoria blackberry. “The critical thing is its eating quality,” says Brooks. “Thanks to Driscoll’s Victoria, you can now eat blackberries like any other berry – that’s a revolution and so we are seeing huge opportunity for year-round growth.” He also reveals that, although blackberries remain the smallest category in soft fruit, “we have seen that sales of Driscoll’s Victoria sweet blackberries have already more than doubled this year; 99 tonnes compared to 45 tonnes in 2015.” He adds that several Berry Gardens members are investing significantly in the variety and retailers’ appetite for Driscoll’s Victoria continues to drive the market.

The next stage, he says, is to educate consumers further that the sweeter varieties are available and that blackberries are not just for cooking. “Again at the London Taste Festival this year we sampled Driscoll’s Victoria and everybody was amazed by the natural sweetness,” says Brooks. Green adds that Victoria is popular amongst younger consumers and, interestingly, men. “Women opt for strawberries and raspberries whilst men go for blueberries and blackberries.”

Cherries on the cusp

Although weather conditions have produced a lighter cherry crop this year, the UK’s cherry market – valued (by Kantar) at £125 million – will still grow in value. “I think we are on the cusp of something great,” says Brooks. “Roughly one-third of cherries are still in non-retail outlets, such as roadside sales and farmers’ markets. So there’s a huge opportunity still for commercial producers and retailers to have substantial sales of cherries.”

Meanwhile, Marston notes that this year has seen the first commercial volume of Sequoia, low-chill cherries. He says: “As an early variety it has the flavour of a mid-season variety.”

Berry Gardens -  manbag pack
The manbag – a strawberry pack with a carry handle

A family affair

The Berry Gardens team explains that the company regularly invests in primary consumer research to enable it to explore new commercial opportunities. Green therefore reveals that: “The research we did on the strawberries is that they are often still a teatime treat – so we have up-weighted it [the pack] to 1.1kg just to give families more value for money.” Green also reveals that the firm has this year developed a new “manbag” – namely a pack with a handle. “Consumers recognise that it’s a convenient form to carry out of the shop,” she says. Marston adds that Berry Gardens’ mixed pack format continues to be popular, as sales have already doubled this year. “The pack is an effective tool of introducing customers to different berry types at an attractive price,” he says.

The Berry Gardens team were speaking at Fruit Focus in East Malling, Kent on July 20.

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