Berry sales are booming at retail, and strawberries are still the mainstay of the category, providing 48% of weekly berry sales in the first quarter of 2017, according to United Fresh's FreshFacts on Retail report. ( Pamela Riemenschneider )

The entire berry business is booming, and strawberries still remain the top draw for consumers.

According to the FreshFacts on Retail report from the United Fresh Produce Association, strawberries accounted for about 48% of weekly berries sales in the first quarter of 2017, compared with 27% for blueberries, 15% for raspberries and 10% for blackberries.

The Packer’s Fresh Trends 2017 reported that 63% of people polled purchased strawberries in the previous 12 months, compared with 45% for blueberries, 30% for blackberries and 30% for raspberries.

Strawberry sales in the first quarter of 2017 were 1% higher than year-ago numbers, trailing the overall berry category dollar growth of 2.1%.


Standing out

Despite the ascension of blueberries, raspberries and blackberries, Dick Spezzano, president of Spezzano Consulting Service Inc., Monorovia, Calif., said strawberries remain the work horse of the berry category, with small annual sales increases from a large base.

“The whole berry category is very big and getting bigger all the time,” he said.

The fact that strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and blackberries continue to see growth is remarkable, said Cindy Jewell, director of marketing for California Giant Inc., Watsonville.

“All four are still on a growth track.”

Strawberries have a huge base of customers across the U.S. and that continues to slowly grow, she said. “We are not seeing a lot of cannibalization — the other berries are eating a little into (strawberries), but there is plenty of room to grow,” she said


Organic growth

Organic berries have also been a strong, fast-growing category for retailers, Spezzano said, as the premium for organic berries compared with conventional often exceeds the organic premium for other commodities.

Fresh Trends 2017 reports that 10% of consumers who say they bought strawberries in the previous 12 months said they purchased organic strawberries in that period. About 18% who said they purchased strawberries said they bought both organic and conventional, according to Fresh Trends.

For the third quarter of 2017, United FreshFacts reported that retail sales growth for organic berries was up 11.5% compared with the third quarter of 2016. Unit volume was up 9.5% for the third quarter and pricing was 1.9% above year-ago levels.


Merchandising options

One-pound clamshells are still the most common pack for strawberries, but Spezzano said retailers like the option of carrying a 2-pound and possibly even a 4-pound clamshell during the height of the season.

“Retailers I talk with love the bigger packs from this point of view, that when you only have 1-pounds and you put them on promotion, oftentimes it takes your margin down to zero or minus,” he said.

On the other hand, a retailer could opt to price a 4-pound clamshell at the promotional price $3.99 and price his 1-pound clamshell at $1.99 and still sell volume to those who won’t buy a bigger pack.

“Instead of having the strawberry category down at zero or minus margins, you are able to mix it up and have a 10% to 20% margin on strawberries for that week,” he said.

Craig Casca, vice president and head of markets for Los Olivos, Calif.-based Red Blossom, agreed larger clamshells are getting more attention.

“We are doing a lot more 2-pounders than we have in the past,” Casca said. “Retailers are starting to go to 2-pounders to move more berries and give people a value for their money.”

The firm has seen a 10% to 15% increase in the demand for 2-pound clamshells over a last year, and the pack now represents about 45% of what the firm sells.

The 2-pound clamshell is definitely mainstream, said Cindy Jewell, director of marketing for California Giant Inc., Watsonville. 

“It used to be for club stores and for certain times of the year, but you have more and more people looking to buy strawberries in bigger container,” Jewell said.

Spezzano said more retailers are taking advantage of year-round berry supplies by putting permanent refrigerated displays for conventional and organic berries at the front of the produce department.

“It’s a permanent spot and the only thing that changes is retail pricing, but the volume is so great on berries, they never move (the display) to the back,” he said.