Wild blueberries on rise in frozen fruit market

Posted June 02, 2010, at 12:06 a.m.

MACHIAS, Maine — When the wild blueberry industry last September launched a major three-year campaign to capture the frozen fruit market, the effort had two major hurdles.

Not only did industry leaders have to convince customers to pick up wild blueberries from the frozen food cases, but they had to persuade supermarkets to carry them.

Maine is the world’s largest producer of wild blueberries and although the berries were carried in New England supermarkets and some organic markets, nationally the freezer shelves were filled with cultivated blueberries.

But nine months into the campaign, the results are satisfyingly positive.

John Sauve of the Swardlick Marketing Group, which represents the Maine-based Wild Blueberry Association of North America, said Tuesday that all fruits used to be counted as part of the frozen dessert category.

“But now, thanks to our efforts, frozen fruit is being tracked separately,” he said. This enables the industry to keep a better eye on sales, but it can also use precise sales figures to show supermarket managers that frozen fruit is an important product to carry.

“One of our tasks is to make people care about the frozen fruit category, both within the industry and customers,” Sauve said. He said early indications that the campaign is working come from IRI Data, a national tracking system, that has reported that frozen fruit is on an upswing while many other categories within the grocery store, such as dairy, are in decline.

All of this, Sauve said, has translated into an increase in sales.

“We can’t share private data,” he said, “but we are privy to private company information, and it is very encouraging, both the wild blueberry sales in the marketplace and the overall penetration of wild blueberries into the national marketplace.”

In 2008, Maine harvested a bumper crop of 90 million pounds of wild blueberries.

But while the market was flooded with native and imported cultivated berries and the prices paid for all berries continued to drop, major marketing campaigns for wild blueberries focused on their health properties and targeted the ingredient industry.

Also, last fall for the first time ever, the wild blueberry industry challenged the cultivated berry industry with its new logo, a new direction and a three-year marketing plan.

Sauve said the hope is that by targeting the frozen fruit market, Maine’s producers could triple their market share.

Sauve estimated that the industry now sells 20 to 30 million pounds to the frozen fruit sector, about a third of what Maine produces.

“We can do 100 million pounds there,” he forecast.

Sauve said that 76 percent of consumers believe frozen fruit is healthy, yet only 25 percent actually have it in their home freezers.

“We have never gone after the frozen market like we are now,” he said.

He said the wild blueberry’s success has been built on its health properties, which include guarding against cell damage associated with cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease and the effects of aging.

Sauve said wild blueberries account for only 25 percent of the country’s blueberry market. The rest are cultivated. But cultivated berry prices have plummeted to pre-2006 levels and wild blueberry producers need to capitalize on their premium aspect, he said.

“Our campaign is energizing and reshaping how shoppers regard the frozen fruit aisle as a regularly visited, go-to resource, and how frozen fruit is both viewed and used at home,” Sauve said.

He said the campaign is all about getting the marketplace excited.

Key to the Wild Blueberry Association of North America’s campaign is educating consumers about the draw of frozen wild blueberries’ flavor, texture and convenience, coupled with highlighting the marked differences between wild and cultivated berries. Suave said wild blueberries are smaller than cultivated berries, have a more intense flavor, freeze superbly and retain their important nutritional benefits.

“This is not a category where people wake up in the morning and say, ‘Oh, I’ve got to run out and buy frozen fruit today,’ but we are taking the lead in changing that,” he said.

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