Sustained growth in the fresh berries category will only be achieved by focusing on continued improvement in the taste quality of berries, delegates attending this year's Global Berry Congress in Amsterdam have heard.
More than 360 delegates from 30 countries attended the conference and networking event, where several expert speakers and panelists identified taste as a major priority for those working to develop new varieties and bring them to market.
Theo Houwen, managing director of Driscoll's of Europe, Middle East and Africa, commented: "It's all about taste, availability and experience for consumers. Berry consumers spend double that of non-berry consumers in retail stores, so providing similar quality in the off-season is essential if the category is to grow. Quality has to be right 365 days a year; otherwise, prices will drop and the market will be a mess."
With the European market showing strong growth particularly for blueberries, raspberries and strawberries, ensuring consumers are buying consistently high quality product should be of paramount importance, suggested Cort Brazelton, head of business development at the world's largest blueberry breeder Fall Creek Farm & Nursery.
"I would say Europe is at the same position as the US was in about 1995/96," Brazelton said. "Consumption of blueberries in Europe is currently 70g per capita compared with 1.09kg in the US. To sell more, the industry has got to offer a consistently more positive experience."
Robert Verloop, executive vice-president of marketing at US company Naturipe Farms, agreed that new varieties would need to raise the bar in terms of consumer experience.
"Consumers who have a bad experience with berries tend to stay away for around 6-9 weeks on average," he explained. "New types of berries are being bred that focus on the eating experience and breeders are starting to help consumers come back for more.
He added: "Extending taste-life will be key, but this requires the right technology. Health is an important factor, yes, but for consumers it really is about taste and enjoyment."
Marion Durose, who manages new product and variety development at Scottish marketer Angus Soft Fruits, sounded a word of warning for those suppliers tempted to rest on their laurels following a decade of stunning growth for the fresh berry category, while urging retailers not to get carried away by its recent success.
"Declining numbers of people are trying blackberries," she noted. "The focus is now on breeding and the first blackberry crosses will be available in 2015. A lot more focus is also expected on breeding new raspberries and blueberries. New floricane raspberry varieties from Scotland, for example, could be on retail shelves within a few years."
Durose suggested more sweetness would be needed from those new blackberry varieties, and urged retailers not to get ahead of the game in trying to build the blackberry segment too quickly by sourcing sub-standard product.
Brazelton echoed that sentiment. "On the buying side, there has to be a conscious effort to displace weaker product, which may mean that retailers will have to pay a bit more."
Matter of taste
For Steve Nelson, president and chief executive of California-based berry genetics group Plant Sciences, the introduction of good-tasting new varieties – and potentially even new berry types like black raspberries – would definitely help grow the category.
"Creating demand is the antithesis of selling," he told the congress. "How? Supply consistently good-tasting fruit. Success in berries requires the right varieties, strong growers, proven sales and marketing, and supply chain expertise."
For many retailers in parts of Europe, it appears that taking the management and merchandising of berries more seriously can potentially have dramatic results in terms of profitability and shopper loyalty.
"Four years ago, we weren't managing the berry category well," commented Atle Olsen, category manager for fruit and vegetables at Coop Norway. "There was little consumer impulse to buy back then, but now we are managing the category better and this has generated an extra €21m in sales."