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FRESH FOOD: Berry healthy

Talk about having your shortcake and eating it, too. Sales of berries are booming, not only because they remain some of the best-tasting fruits on the planet, but also because of the attention their potent nutritional properties have garnered lately.

Thanks to a growing body of research confirming their extraordinary health benefits, antioxidant-rich berries have become much more than just another pretty fruit. The category's appeal as a vital component to a healthy lifestyle may also help shippers address the challenge of berries' peaks and valleys in price points and sales, and turn the industry into a more stable, year-round business.

Dan Crowley, sales manager for Watsonville, Calif.-based Well-Pict Berries, sums up the category's strong positioning nicely: "People just love a good eating berry, don't they?"

Indeed they do, but now there's much more to love: In a recent food Olympics of sorts, the berry family accounted for six of the top 11 foods among a variety of fruits, vegetables, and nuts vying for recognition on a new list of the 20 most antioxidant-rich foods, ranked by nutrition scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Small red beans only narrowly edged out wild blueberries as the food with the highest concentration of disease-fighting compounds per serving.

"Berries have always had the impulse-sales aspect going for them," says Crowley, "but now people are seeking them out for their potent fiber, potassium, folate, phytochemical, nutrient, and antioxidant properties. They're just good to eat, all the way around."

And the berry industry isn't just standing pat. Suppliers continue to beat the bushes in search of a better berry. One of them, Well-Pict, has developed several patented varieties of strawberries that Crowley says offer sweeter taste, higher color, a more consistent shape, and longer shelf life than some other berries.

Crowley credits the California Strawberry Commission (CSC) for sowing many of the seeds retailers are now using to reap the harvests of strawberry fields forever -- or at least on a year-round basis.

To be sure, berries have become one of the produce department's top offerings. Says Chris Christian, director of product and marketing for the Watsonville-based commission: "The berry category is a high contributor to overall produce department sales and continues to increase each year. During peak availability in the spring, strawberries can contribute over 6 percent of total produce department sales."

A year-round edge

The discernable drawback during the current nonpeak strawberry season, she says, is high price points. "But with the new varieties that are cropping up as more of our shippers shoot for year-round strawberry programs, there will be more availability at nontraditional times of the year," adds Christian. "We've already started seeing that, and over time it will really help bring prices down for consumers."

With Mother Nature calling most of the shots, however, there will always be a pricing threshold to contend with, concedes Christian. To try to take the emphasis off price, the commission created a marketing initiative in 2003, the "Be Well...Get the Red Edge" program, intended to drive consumer demand and consumption with information about the health benefits of strawberries.

"I know many of us indulge in little things on a regular basis, so what we want to do with our Red Edge campaign is to give consumers a really compelling reason to believe they absolutely have to have their strawberries every day for a better lifestyle, both now and when they're older," explains Christian.

Berry sales today are getting some help on the consumer side, due to the nationwide focus on the problems of obesity and the need for Americans to eat healthier, says Christian. On the industry side, she adds, the growing year-round availability of many items provides more choices for consumers and drives increased consumption.

For its 2005 marketing plan the CSC will continue to channel its energies into the nutrition-research-supported Red Edge campaign to get the word out about strawberries' benefits, through dietitians, nutrition writers, food editors, and retailers. In addition, the commission is now gearing up for a demand-building plan that will include a media tour centered on healthy eating and the importance of strawberries in a healthy diet, featuring registered dietitian Ellie Krieger, author of the forthcoming book Small Changes, Big Results.

At the store level CSC is attempting to intensify the berry's influence within the produce department, via a beefed-up category management program. "We are now able to comprehensively review berry category performance with individual retailers and develop best practices for improving strawberry category performance," notes Christian.

The commission has also been involved in retail cold-chain studies, the results of which will be released shortly, according to Christian. Initial findings show that although the familiar green plastic baskets are still on the scene, nearly two-thirds of berries are now packed in consumer-friendly clamshell packages, which have played an integral role in the industry's drive to sell more berries, she adds.

"For the 52-week period ending Sept. 26, 2004, clamshell packages were used for nearly 92 percent of the strawberries sold at retail," up nearly 2.5 percentage points from a year ago, says Christian. Sales of one-pound and two-pound packs increased the most, while volume in pints and other random-weight packaging declined.

Dole's banana model

Dole Food Co. is another major supplier with year-round availability in its sights. In late October the company fortified its berry portfolio through the acquisition of Coastal Berry Co., a leading producer of fresh strawberries and bushberries (raspberries and blackberries). The acquisition, which merged both existing berry programs into one to create Dole Berry Co., is anticipated to thrust the new entity into the third slot among California's largest fresh strawberry producers.

Vince Lopes, v.p. of berry sales and marketing, says the berry category, primarily strawberries, "is very strong and gaining momentum. We're moving toward the 'banana model' with product in the stores 52 weeks per year, and we are starting to see regular purchase activity in addition to some multiple per-week purchases by consumers, especially during peak season," which, for California strawberries, runs from March through October.

The shipper has documented the positive impact that sales price points can have on movement. Pointing to research that finds "a significant [consumer] preference is to do their shopping where strawberries are on ad," Lopes says, "We can sell almost twice as many pints of strawberries at $1.99 than $2.49. This gets the shopper in the store, where they now also have an opportunity to fill the basket with other items."

Due to the overall halo effect of strawberries, observes Lopes, it "often makes pricing very competitive for the consumer, in that major retailers will often sacrifice very low margins or even consider loss leader activity, where they lose money on berries as a single line item, just to draw traffic."

Displays bearing multiple SKUs also have an additional impact, but for several retailers, merchandising multiple package sizes remains an untapped opportunity, says Lopes.

Well-Pict's Crowley, on the other hand, favors everyday retail programs over the spiked demand and movement of ad-driven promotions. "It's not like our crops go away the week after the ad period, but the volume certainly does. And while we will never get away from the wonderful Valentine's Day, Mother's Day, and Easter promotional periods, eliminating those shadows afterward is what's been difficult to reconcile."

In other strawberry activity, sales of organic berries are holding steady, suppliers say, although demand is expected to increase in coming years. As such, many growers, including Driscoll's and Pacific Gold Farms, are building up their organic berry offerings. Pacific Gold, which began growing organic strawberries in 1999, says that since then, organic acreage has steadily increased. The company now represents over 15 percent of the Golden State's organic strawberry acreage.

And California Giant, the Watsonville-based berry shipper that successfully launched the first-ever strawberry beverage last year, has seen strong results from its patented Just Strawberries juice made from fresh strawberries and merchandised in the fresh produce department. The drink combines great taste with no preservatives and offers a 30-day shelf life.

On the blue end of the spectrum, blueberries are one of the strongest success stories in nutrition marketing. Recently published research has concluded that specific compounds in wild blueberries (proanthocyanidins, or condensed tannins) might not only be effective inhibitors of cancer, but also help prevent urinary tract infections.

According to Susan Davis, nutrition adviser to the Bar Harbor, Maine-based Wild Blueberry Association of North America, such findings build on the growing body of evidence that the more colorful the fruits and vegetables, the better. Davis expects that, over time, "ongoing wild-blueberry research will lead to more exciting discoveries about the power of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables."

Golden raspberries, for example, comprise a small but up-and-coming segment. The delicate, attractive berries are gaining popularity, particularly in upscale restaurants, where they're mixed with red raspberries in desserts and salads.

Berries are also getting a boost through their use in nutraceutical products. Says Jan Schroeder, marketing director for the Corvallis-based Oregon Raspberry and Blackberry and Oregon Strawberry commissions, "The nutraceutical market has been the single biggest thing that's affected sales" of that state's strawberry crop.

"It's been a great year for berries all the way around," continues Schroeder, "with more and more consumers buying all kinds of berries for their antioxidant and health properties."

Berries have been good for cereal makers and consumers, as well, adds Schroeder, pointing to highly successful dried-berry line extensions that have expanded some of Kellogg's and General Mills' most popular cereal franchises.
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