Blackberry sales in the U.K. have the potential to multiply, provided sweeter, snacking varieties can be grown during the counter-season to guarantee continuity of supply throughout the year. At Fresh Fruit Portal we speak with leading British berry grower-marketers Angus Soft Fruits, Berry Gardens and BerryWorld UK to learn more.
Only a small portion of U.K. consumers are buying blackberries on a regular basis, but off this relatively low base the market is growing by around fifth year-on-year.
According to figures from Kantar Worldpanel, in the year to June 18, 2017 there was an 18.7% uptick in annual retail sales to £37.4 million (US$48.6 million), while in the last 12 weeks of that period – coinciding with the British season start – the rate was at 29.3%.
“Market growth is being driven by the same shoppers buying blackberries more frequently,” points out Angus Fruits commercial director John Gray.
“There is an element of consumers being happy with the product, which is positive. But it shows there’s still a lot more room to grow.”
The Kantar data shows just 5.7% of U.K. shoppers are buying the fruit regular, compared to65% for strawberries, 33% for blueberries and 25% for raspberries.
And only 12.5% of U.K. households bought blackberries in the past year, compared to rates of 80% for strawberries and close to 50% for raspberries and blueberries.
“If you trebled blackberry sales you’d still be selling to half as many people as those that buy blueberries or raspberries,” says Gray.
“I don’t think it would be a surprise if we saw volumes trebling over the next five years.”
Kent-based Berry Gardens category manager Colin Morley agrees, providing a shorter-term forecast.
“With increased production, we think that sales of blackberries could double by the end of 2020,” Morley says.
Making a “fragile” market sweeter
To tap into the potential the U.K.’s major berry providers are focused on delivering sweeter eating, snacking varieties of blackberries.
During the U.K. season Angus Soft Fruits supplies Karaka Black, BerryWorld UK offers Black Magic, and Berry Gardens has the exclusive rights to market Driscoll’s Victoria, as well as Driscoll’s Elvira, Dasha, Catherine and Vanessa which are bred for sweet-eating traits as well as size.
The next step is to secure a consistent, year-round offer by finding sweet varieties suited to growing conditions in the Southern Hemisphere or Mexico for the import season.
“The blackberry market is still a fragile one and as it grows it really needs stability and a truly sweet eating offer”” Jacqui Green, the new CEO of Berry Gardens, tells Fresh Fruit Portal.
“The key to expansion is about easy to pick, consistent production. Fundamentally, availability across 52 weeks of the year is our driving ambition to ensure we have a constant supply of sweet eating varieties – once consumers are aware of these new sweet treats, we don’t want to let them go.”
To achieve this, Green says grower-owners within the Berry Gardens group are making investments in glasshouse structures to extend the U.K. blackberry season and spread the traditional natural peak.
At the same time, most of the major berry suppliers in the U.K. operate their own breeding programs through which they are working to develop sweeter, yielding varieties for counter-seasonal production.
“That’s one of the biggest challenges with blackberries at the moment,” explains Samuel Rowe, general manager of BerryWorld Varieties, the division of the BerryWorld Group responsible for the management of plant orders, propagation and delivery of quality plants.
“There are sweeter eating blackberries that work in the U.K. but when you move into imports you go back to the standard, higher-acid varieties from places like Mexico.
“We also need to ensure blackberries have good shelf life.
“We’ve made huge inroads with strawberries, raspberries, blueberries – they have exceptional shelf life so we need to follow that through with blackberries.”
Within the next five years, if not sooner, Rowe believes there will be a consistent, sweet-eating blackberry supply in the U.K. for 365 days a year.
BerryWorld UK is making significant progress in sourcing new breeding material as it rapidly expands its germplasm.
“One of the strengths of our program is we breed in the U.K. for the U.K. so we’re very close to the market,” Rowe says.
“Plus we’re always regenerating our stock – we don’t just look for new varieties, we look for new parents that could become the parent of a new variety.”
Meanwhile, Berry Gardens already works in collaboration with Driscoll’s, which benefits from very strong berry genetics. The firm has a limited production of Driscoll’s Victoria in Mexico, which will expand as the years progress.
“Another new variety in development overseas is Driscoll’s Elvira, which we have seen from Mexico this year and looks very promising,” reveals Green.
Angus Soft Fruits is also looking at the potential to grow sweeter blackberries varieties outside the U.K. as part of its own breeding program.
“In the next few years we’ll have something exclusive to Angus Soft Fruits,” Gray says.
While research continues for a year-round offer, the challenge remains to change the traditional perception among U.K. consumers that blackberries taste ‘tangy’.
“Blackberries are seen as a seasonal fruit that you can pick from a hedgerow,” explains Rowe at BerryWorld Varieties.
“There’s still a hereditary inclination to think blackberries are just for cooking, that they’re bitter or sharp.”
Gray adds that blackberries are simply not in the minds of consumers compared with other berries or fruits.
“Shoppers aren’t thinking of blackberries as a regular purchase in the fruit basket,” he says.
“They are perhaps viewing it as more of a baking ingredient for crumbles or pies. Blackberries don’t get the [retail] shelf space either, so they’re not as available.”
The new sweeter varieties blackberries have greater versatility of use, however, meaning consumption can be promoted throughout the day.
“From breakfast through to a late night snack, it’s a healthy treat at any time,” notes Morley at Berry Gardens.
Having seen the success of the berry category overall, Gray says UK.. retailers are pushing blackberries more, which is helping the fruit gain visual awareness.
“A few years ago retailers started to segment blackberries into sweeter or tangy varieties,” he explains.
“That’s starting to link with packaging and it’s had a reasonable amount of success.”
Green agrees retailers have been supportive. At a retail level, Berry Gardens offers free sweet blackberry tasters within berry packs or differentiated packs that often feature Driscoll’s Victoria in a retailer’s ‘top tier’ offer or with flashes denoting ‘sweeter eating’.
Likewise, BerryWorld UK is offering taster pots of Black Magic blackberries within punnets of its other berries sold in Waitrose, combined with on-pack communication about the sweeter eating characteristics.
“It’s all down to education. It’s about getting consumers to try, alongside labelling and communication,” Rowe says.
In addition, Berry Gardens is using initiatives such as better use of ticketing in store and shopper tasting opportunities in store or at shows.
The firm has also launched a website uksweetblackberries.co.uk, which features recipes developed by chef and food journalist Rosie Birkett. In February the Driscoll’s Victoria blackberry variety won Best Variety of the Year at the Grower Awards.
The U.K. blackberry season begins with picking in early June until late September, with glasshouse production extending until late October.
This year harvesting began early with good availability and fruit quality. However, temperatures are now tracking below average at the halfway point and growers say there is nothing to suggest 2017 will not be another strong season.
Headline photo: BerryWorld UK