Blueberries’ exceptional consumer appeal made them the fastest-growing fruit of 2013, and there is no end in sight for their ardent growth trajectory. Blueberries have a number of coveted characteristics which make them superior to other types of fruit, including a good shelf life, convenience and superfruit status. Strawberries, cherries and grapes may, to date, be more popular in terms of volumes sold, but blueberries have excellent potential for catching up. High price points are still an issue, although this may soon be resolved as producers are making a concerted effort to boost supplies.
Blueberries Have What it Takes
Fresh cranberries/blueberries delivered an outstanding performance in 2013 as the fastest-growing fruit category in volume terms globally. With a growth rate of 9%, the category not only managed to double the gain achieved the previous year but also clocked up triple the growth mustered by fresh fruit overall.
There is no arguing that blueberries are the perfect berry snack. Compared to other popular berries, like strawberries and raspberries, which are highly “squish prone”, blueberries have a long shelf life. Besides washing, they need no further preparation before being consumed. From the consumer’s point of view, in terms of consumption convenience and durability, blueberries are on a par with grapes, which lack the coveted “superfruit” status.
Our data show that grapes outsold cranberries/blueberries by 30 to one (by weight) in 2013. The latter are fast gaining ground, however. Over the 2008-2013 review period, global fresh grape volume sales rose by 14% compared to 32% for cranberries/blueberries.
Blueberries may still have a long way to go until they surpass table grape volume sales but they are much closer to catching up with strawberries and cherries. Six times more strawberries than blueberries/cranberries were sold in 2013, and double the amount of cherries. However, blueberries have the edge on both - a superior shelf life to strawberries and they trump cherries when it comes to all-year-round supply.
The top five markets driving blueberry/cranberry growth in 2013 were Australia, Russia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Venezuela. The US, the world’s largest market for cranberries/blueberries, was fairly stagnant due to saturation, and only Italy showed a marginal decline. In the latter case, the ongoing recession and blueberries’ premium pricing were partly to blame.
The price factor may still be holding blueberries back but it is only a matter of time until production ramps up sufficiently for them to reach everyday-fruit-snack status. Right now, they are still considered something of a “treat”, rather than being on a par with the likes of apples, plums and, of course, grapes.
North America has traditionally been (and still is) the world’s biggest blueberry producer, but large volumes are now grown in the southern hemisphere, ensuring year-round availability.
Chile is Latin America’s most prolific producer and in January 2014 several players, including the Chilean Blueberry Committee and the Fruit Exporters Association of Chile AG, bandied together in order to plan and execute a major promotional drive across Europe this year. This will include advertisements in grocery retailer magazines, eg Germany’s Rewe and Real supermarkets, POS campaigns in Denmark and Russia, along with a special focus on Sweden and Norway, which are considered “developing markets” from the Chilean blueberry industry’s point of view. They will also home in on Poland and Turkey, which are regarded as promising gateways to the emerging markets of Eastern Europe and the Middle East, respectively.
Peru is also emerging as a major player in blueberry cultivation. According to industry sources, Peru exported blueberries worth over US$13 million in 2013, but much of the country’s potentially suitable agricultural land remains underexploited, or is being used instead for low-yielding monoculture crops that consume a lot of water. Blueberries, on the other hand, can even be grown in relatively poor sandy soil as long as its pH is adequately controlled. Excess fertiliser and water are not conducive to blueberry cultivation, making it a low-input and fairly hardy crop in many respects.
But it is not just emerging producer countries which are keen on capitalising on the blueberry boom. It was reported in February 2014 that Syngenta Canada Inc, Dalhousie University (Nova Scotia) and The Engineering Research Council of Canada were working on a joint project to boost bee populations. Blueberry cultivation in Canada’s Maritime Provinces has increased significantly over the past years, but an insufficient number of bees is constraining blueberry yields. Proposed measures to maximise pollination include planting bee-attracting flowering plants along blueberry field borders and the provision of nesting sites for the bees.
Underexploited Markets Ensure Long-Term Growth Potential
We predict that global fresh cranberry/blueberry volumes will rise by close to 40% over the 2013-2018 forecast period, finally surpassing the one million tonne mark in 2018.
The markets projected to perform the best over the next half a decade are Singapore, the Philippines, Norway, Malaysia and Sweden. The UK, despite already having an appreciable blueberry market (the 10th largest globally, in fact), is also set to do well with expected volume growth of 76%. This enthusiastic performance will be propelled by UK consumers’ high level of receptiveness to the superfruit message and, of course, the all-important convenience factor.
Producers are doing the right thing in ramping up production as blueberries still have enormous global growth potential over the long term due to many markets remaining underexploited up till now. In Europe, for example, sales volumes are still very much on the low side in Spain, Turkey, France and Italy. In Latin America, Brazil is an underdeveloped market for blueberries, although this stems largely from competition from the country’s indigenous fruits, of which there is a plentiful array all year round.