Europe: consumer education key to exotic fruit growth
The exotic fruit market in Europe is set to expand, but importers claim growth will only be notable and sustainable if consumers are adequately educated about how to use the fruits and benefit nutritionally.
"The exotics market is still very new and nowhere near maturity but demand and consumption are definitely increasing," explains Soraya Bahrami, co-founder of Toucan Fruit, a U.K.-based exotics importer-distributor which recently celebrated its first year in business.
"We have seen a keen interest from some of the U.K. supermarkets who have started to introduce more exotic and rare fruits to test the market and respond to changing consumer tastes.
"In particular they are interested in the different passion fruit varieties that we supply, such as maracuya (passion fruit) and granadilla."
According to Bahrami, Marks & Spencer, Asda and Morrisons recently started stocking some exotics that are new to the U.K. market, such as tamarillo and achacha; a small orange-colored fruit that belongs to the mangosteen family. Upmarket retailers like Harrods, Harvey Nichols and Fortnum & Mason are also seeking to expand their exotics ranges, she says.
"Harrods has radically changed its produce department to place a greater emphasis on exotics because they know that as people travel more and see these fruits they will increasingly demand them," Bahrami claims.
"With the heightening health craze we are also seeing demand for exciting and nutritional products and a desire to go back to basics.
In addition to retailers, Bahrami says that wholesalers, foodservice operators and restaurants are showing a strong interest in sourcing more exotics, while the fruits are also becoming more accessible through online retailers like Amazon.
All exotic fruits have interesting growth potential and the future looks especially bright for passion fruit, according to Joost Verrest, managing director of major importer Total Exotics Europe.
"Passion fruit is already there and physalis is very popular in certain countries like Germany and the U.K. but it's not reached the same level in other places like the Netherlands,” Verrest tells www.freshfruitportal.com.
In terms of country suppliers, meanwhile, he says Colombia presents much promise in particular on account of the nation's excellent growing conditions.
"Colombia grows a lot of exotics like passion fruit and physalis and I believe there is much more to come, especially with increasing stability within the country," he says.
Sustaining long-term sales
Verrest is confident the exotics market will expand and believes even more products will be added to the category, but he argues there are many issues and barriers that will be difficult to overcome.
Indeed, he says the exotics category will only become "really interesting" if sales are truly sustainable.
To achieve that, he claims the mainstream exotic items must first be strengthened in terms of consumer understanding and acceptance.
"The market continues to be very much based on the core exotics offer and there are a lot of fruits within that category that consumers are still struggling with," Verrest states.
"Pineapples are known by everyone but even now consumers don't really know how to use them or how to peel them. So pineapple sales remain concentrated to the peak seasons like Easter and Christmas when most consumers want the fruit because it looks good in fruit bowls.
"Consumers still don’t know how to choose melons either and they can’t distinguish between melon varieties unless the fruit is cut open so they can see the color of the flesh inside."
Behrami agrees that a lack of consumer knowledge is hampering growth and will take time to remedy.
"Consumers believe that exotics are not easily accessible, difficult to process and/or unpalatable," she says.
"The key is to educate them about how to eat, ripen, store and prepare these fruits as well as raising their awareness of the health benefits."
Verrest says more in-store and on-pack communication for the core items in the exotics category will be vital for paving the way for the niche items, such as pomegranates, passion fruit, physalis, pitahaya, figs and Key limes.
"The first challenge is to build a story and image around those core products, and to communicate that directly to consumers.
"You need to communicate what you can do with the product and how easy it is to use because this removes the barrier and builds sustainable growth.
"If consumers know they can make guacamole in five minutes and get more nutrition from it than eating pre-made guacamole then it's more appealing and it makes sense."
Verrest claims there is lots of value that can be added to a product by creating a concept, providing the right information on packaging and offering the fruit already ripened.
"It’s not just about a brand. You need to conceptualise a category and then realise it together with your retail partners to make a difference, to really build something and to create sustainable growth.
"Then you can look at what belongs on the shelf; how important it is and how interested you are in it."
Verrest points toward the commoditization of kiwifruit as an example of just how much could be achieved for other exotics fruits with the right communication and supply.
Photo: Toucan Fruit