February, 2014

Research Perspective and Comments & Analysis

Blueberry Consumers Trending Younger As Overall Consumption Rises In U.S.

By Mark Villata, Executive Director For The U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council

Demand for blueberries is growing by leaps and bounds. Americans are nearly twice as likely as they were nine years ago to buy blueberries this year. The number of households saying they purchased blueberries within the past month (69 percent) has nearly doubled since 2008.

Today’s blueberry consumers are also trending younger and more diverse; they are more likely to be 35- to 44-year-olds (often parents with kids at home) and minorities. When one considers this shift in buyer demographics, and the fact that 57 percent of consumers have seen news stories about the healthfulness of blueberries, it’s evident that the industry’s investment in communicating the role blueberries play in a healthy lifestyle is paying off. With the Mom market representing $2.7 trillion in annual spending in the U.S. and the Hispanic market expected to hit $1.5 trillion in buying power by 2015, connecting with this next wave of purchasers will continue to be a key strategy in driving demand.

 

A Fit For Modern Lifestyles

As consumers place greater emphasis on finding healthy, flavorful options that are also convenient, blueberries rise to the top of ideal options. Marketers looking to move product quickly off shelves should continue to position blueberries as a good fit for modern lifestyles.

When asked what they like best about blueberries, consumers cite a variety of attributes including health (84 percent), taste (81 percent), convenience (61 percent) and versatility (44 percent) — evidence that they view blueberries as a simple yet beneficial addition to their diet.

The majority of consumers (84 percent) choose fresh blueberries over other forms, preferring to eat them “out-of-hand” as a snack (60 percent), over yogurt (54 percent), in smoothies (49 percent) or over cereal (48 percent) — all ideal options for busy families or individuals.

The favorite way to use frozen blueberries is in smoothies. Forty-nine percent of the general population, and 54 percent of women between the ages of 25 to 44, say they like to use frozen blueberries in smoothies, which have become a popular source of fuel for the health-conscious and time-pressed.

 

The Blueberry Effect

With 99 percent of consumers believing blueberries to be a healthy food and 68 percent stating awareness of specific health benefits (a 115 percent increase over 2004), there’s no doubt consumers associate blueberries with a healthy lifestyle. This is good news for marketers, because awareness of the fruit’s nutritional benefits is closely tied to propensity to purchase.

When consumers see blueberry items on menus, 58 percent perceive the specific dish as being healthier, 24 percent perceive the restaurant as offering healthy fare, and nearly 20 percent say they order that specific dish.

 

Blueberry Marketers:

Make Use Of The Web

As they seek to enhance their own bottom line, blueberry marketers have much to gain from web-based communications.

Nearly 60 percent of consumers say they are very likely to purchase blueberries based on information they’ve seen on social media channels such as Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest. To draw more consumers into the store, retailers should consider promoting special blueberry offers through these channels.

 

Key Takeaway

As more people are made aware of the many ways blueberries fit in a healthy, dynamic lifestyle, demand for this small package with big benefits will continue to grow. Marketers and merchandisers with an eye on the bottom line should take a closer look at the great potential of this little fruit. To view an executive summary of the research, visit blueberrycouncil.org/blueberry-marketers.

 

Methodological notes: The research was conducted by Hebert Research, Bellevue, WA, on behalf of the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council in May 2013 among 3,765 nationally representative Americans ages 18 and over. Data was collected via a combination of online, mobile and telephone surveys. Respondents were categorized into a general population group of 1,797 primary shoppers and an oversample of 1,968 women ages 25 to 44 who also identify themselves as primary shoppers. The general population group was used as the baseline for all comparisons with 2004 and 2008 data. Results of any sample are subject to sampling variation. The magnitude of the variation is measurable and is affected by the number of interviews and the level of the percentages expressing the results. In this particular study, the chances are 95 in 100 that a survey result does not vary, plus or minus, by more than 2 percentage points from the result that would be obtained if interviews had been conducted with all persons in the universe represented by the sample. The margin of error for any subgroups will be slightly higher.

 

Unlike Rest Of Industry, Blueberry’s Health Pitch Has Fueled Production And Demand

President Reagan’s economic program was ridiculed by some as “supply side” economics. The Keynesian view, which was conventional wisdom at the time, was to supercharge demand — expecting businesses to keep up, to employ people and to get the economy going.

Although President Reagan never used the “supply side” term, his program was deemed to be focused on creating investment incentives. The theory was that new products and services created their own demand. So it is with blueberries.

Without question, consumption has boomed. Though some of this growth was facilitated by increases in U.S. production, which grew steadily — from 80 million pounds of fresh harvest in 2000 to 281 million pounds in 2012 (according to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Services) — the explosion in production came from the Southern Hemisphere — with Chile alone going from 6 million pounds in 2000 to 117 million pounds in 2012 (according to the U.S. Department of Commerce).

Fifteen years ago, there was virtually no Southern Hemisphere blueberry production. Today, about half of the blueberry consumption in the U.S. is supplied by imports, and both Peru and Mexico are expected to boom in the future.

Obviously, few people would plant blueberries or look to establish a Southern Hemisphere blueberry industry if they didn’t believe the demand would be there, but it is also true that the year-round volume secured year-round shelf-space at retail and funded enhanced promotion. Indeed the decision to go to a mandatory assessment for research and promotion for the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council was driven, in no small part, by projections of massive increases in blueberry production, which motivated the industry to work hard on increasing consumption.

The blueberry health pitch is also somewhat distinct from that of the produce industry at large. Much of the trade’s health focus is built around the idea that eating more produce means eating less of other things and that this change in eating habits will reduce obesity as well as obesity-related health issues. Our industry’s overall health focus is not built on any specific health claim related to produce. That is why no specific mix of produce need be promoted; it is just that “More Matters!”

When you have a fruit that is delicious, available year-around, very convenient to eat, and it supposedly has so many benefits, it is not surprising that consumption keeps rising. It is all upside and no downside.

New technology from companies such as Naturipe even brought blueberries into the seasonal oatmeal selection at McDonald’s. The plan is to bring blueberries into greater use in foodservice — where sales growth has lagged compared to retail.

The blueberry success is an incredible story, but it is hard to know what the lesson is for the rest of the produce industry. Many items that we need boosted in consumption are bitter greens and don’t have the natural appeal of sweet fruits such as blueberries. Many items need to be cooked or are large and bulky. They are not the perfect snack size like the blueberry.

Perhaps some new research would help to find specific health benefits, but it is not clear to what extent these specific benefits drive consumption, as opposed to a general perception that blueberries are good for you, tasty and convenient.

There is a bit of a chicken-and-the-egg quality to the blueberry story. The demographics of usage has broadened — well it is hard to imagine that the demographics of consumption would not change if the market was to absorb such enormous increase in production. More people report they ate blueberries within the past 30 days. Well isn’t that part of year-round production keeping blueberries on the shelf 52 weeks a year in every supermarket? In addition, though 57 percent of consumers have seen news stories about the healthfulness of blueberries, causality is not proven.

The key issue is that a well-received product met an opportunity to become a year-round item. The transition led to more year-round shelf space and the adoption of new habits, say putting blueberries on oatmeal rather than bananas. This fortuitously happened in a well-organized industry that was prepared to invest in expanding demand and researching technology to boost usage.

One thing we don’t have evidence of is that increased consumption of blueberries has led to greater overall produce consumption. That’s a research study that would be well worth doing.