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Blueberries lead the way for imported berries at retail

by Brian Gaylord | September 20, 2010
Imported berries seemingly are marching off ships and airplanes and right into consumers' shopping carts.

Andy Gustavson, produce manager for Ben Lomond Market in Ben Lomond, CA, and produce supervisor for sister store Scotts Valley Market in nearby Scotts Valley, CA, told The Produce News Sept. 7 that he "keeps all varieties of berries in stock year round."

Blueberries have "mushroomed into such a big element" no matter where they are from, Mr. Gustavson said. "Blueberries are so international, I don't worry about getting blueberries."

Organic blueberries have become almost year round, he said. When Mr. Gustavson spoke with The Produce News, the store had six-ounce packs of blueberries selling for $4.99. Much of the organic produce Mr. Gustavson buys for his stores comes from Earl's Organic Produce, located on the San Francisco Wholesale Produce Market.

Blueberries will move at a high price, unlike raspberries, which do not move well at high prices, according to Mr. Gustavson.

"I do not shrink the display down for blueberries and strawberries" from two or three rows, he said, adding that blueberries and strawberries display well together. "Blueberries are an item that has to be in the store day in and day out," he said.

Since late August, dry blueberry pints have stopped coming into Ben Lomond Market, and the six-ounce packs are back, he said.

In the difficult economy of the past few years, consumers have become more demanding, Mr. Gustavson said. "People want to eat 100 percent of what they're buying. Quality sells, and No. 2 [quality] is harder to sell. Some things don't look good."

Mr. Gustavson said that unlike in the past, shoppers will complain to him if there are a few bad berries in a pack, and he said that based on conversations with other produce buyers, his experience mirrors theirs regarding consumers wanting to eat 100 percent of what they buy.

Ben Lomond Market lists the country of origin of all its produce, both in the store and in store fliers.

The retailer is in the process of upgrading its signage, Mr. Gustavson said. "You train the customer to look at that sign." Signage is important in part because Ben Lomond has local growers in its backyard. Consumers "seem to trust Chile more than they trust Mexico," Mr. Gustavson said. "'From Chile' doesn't bother customers like 'From Mexico' does."

But blackberries grown in Mexico for Driscoll Strawberry Associates Inc. sell well at Ben Lomond Market in the winter, Mr. Gustavson said. At other times of the year, wild blackberries grown in the mountains in California's Santa Cruz County prove to be stiff competition. The store's shoppers want to buy local produce when they can, he said.

Driscoll, based in nearby Watsonville, CA, is a big supplier of raspberries and blackberries to Ben Lomond Market, Mr. Gustavson said.

The store put berries on ad for the New Year's holiday. "For some reason, berries sell well for New Year's in the dead of winter," Mr. Gustavson said. By January, Ben Lomond Market is "revved up on berries," and there is a competition of sorts among area retailers to see who can come out with the first berry ad, he said.

Star Market in Salinas, CA, is a mid-sized, independent, family-owned grocery store. It is roughly an hour south of Ben Lomond Market and works with the same San Francisco-based produce buyer used by Mr. Gustavson.

Ryan Souter, Star Market's produce manager, told The Produce News Sept. 7 that the store "tries to get everything" in imported berries. Imported berries coming into the store can be under a different label "every week" depending on what looks good to the buyer, he said.

In addition to its San Francisco-based buyer, Star Market works with West Sacramento, CA-based buyer Nor-Cal Produce Inc.

"Nor-Cal sends a report every week on how the fruit is doing," Mr. Souter said.

Star Market has blueberries year round, with six-ounce clamshells appearing to be the most popular size with Star Market's customers. Blueberries are second only to strawberries in Star Market's berry sales, and the store sells far more blueberries than raspberries or blackberries, Mr. Souter said.

(For more on imported berries, see the Sept. 27, 2010, issue of The Produce News.)