Blueberries have become consumers' top berry, according to the Folsom, California-based U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council's (USHBC's) Consumer Usage & Attitude Study.

Victoria De Bruin, marketing manager for the USHBC, says the fruit has been rising in popularity for quite some time.

"The most recent long-term look at blueberries' success showed that U.S. per capita consumption grew 600% between 1994 and 2014 – more than any other fruit or vegetable," she says.

De Bruin says that blueberries have also transitioned from being featured as snacks or in yogurt to use in more savory dishes that are decidedly out of the norm.

"They're in baked goods and parfaits, but they're also in cocktails and meat glazes," she says. "This type of experimentation is a direct result of today's foodie culture, and the USHBC is tapping into that with the recipes we develop and the promotions we run."

Dollar sales of blueberries across the grocery store (including fresh and dried blueberries) hit $1.3 billion in the latest 52 weeks (ending Dec. 29, 2018), according to the latest data from New York-based Nielsen on total U.S. food stores.

Fresh blueberry dollar sales are up 8.8% and unit sales are up 2.8% from the previous year, says Sarah Schmansky, vice president of Nielsen’s growth and strategy fresh/health and wellness team. It also should be noted that fresh blueberry dollar sales have increased each year since the 52 weeks ending Jan. 2, 2016.

Nielsen data also showed that the average unit price of fresh blueberries in 2018 was $3.58 (which reflects a 5.8% increase in price over the previous year's average unit price of $3.38).

In terms of competitive fruit performance in 2018, Schmansky says that while apples, bananas and grapes continued to achieve the highest dollar sales in the produce department, fresh blueberry sales outperformed other fruit categories including cherries, peaches, pears, lemons, limes and watermelons.

 As for why blueberry sales continue to rise, she says as consumers continue to prioritize health and wellness, they gravitate toward superfoods such as blueberries.

"Blueberries are nutrient dense and high in antioxidants," Schmansky says. "It's been a long-known superfood that has certainly influenced other categories and departments across the store."


Savory applications

De Bruin of the USHBC says that while the most popular uses for fresh blueberries continue to be alone as a snack, on yogurt, in cereal, in salads and on pancakes, there was a 29% increase in consumers using fresh blueberries in savory applications between 2013 and 2017.

Examples of non-traditional savory dishes include USHBC recipes for a "blueberry quinoa power bowl," blueberry balsamic dressing, and crispy chicken thighs with blueberry sauce, she adds.

Organic blueberries also are on the uptick. De Bruin says the USHBC has seen increased consumer interest in organic blueberries, and growers are meeting that demand with increased plantings.

"According to Nielsen data, organic blueberries are gaining in popularity," she says. "In 2017, their market share was 6.1% (in volume). In 2018, that volume share number jumped to 8.5%."

Jason Fung, director of category development for The Oppenheimer Group, Vancouver, British Columbia, says the company is expanding its organic blueberry offerings from both California and the Pacific Northwest during the springtime.

"The growth of the snacking category in general has certainly supported the North American consumption of blueberries, as well," he adds.

Brian Vertrees, director of business development – West region for Naturipe Farms LLC, Salinas, California, says the company offers both conventional and organic blueberries in various sizes ranging from a 6-ounce clamshell to a pint to a 2-pound clamshell.

"We see an increasing demand for organic blueberries and have increased acreage to meet this demand," he says. "In addition to organics, there is a trend for sustainable packaging. For blueberries specifically, we offer our Earth Cycle pulp-fiber pint that is completely compostable, which virtually eliminates plastic and resonates well with organic shoppers."


Year-round availability

Fresh blueberries from South America have allowed U.S. growers and suppliers to extend the growing season so consumers can enjoy blueberries year-round, says De Bruin of the USHBC.

The domestic and Canadian blueberry seasons run from April to late September; blueberry imports from South America are available October through March.

As for the 2019 season, Cindy Jewell, vice president of marketing for California Giant Berry Farms, Watsonsville, California, says pricing has been stable so far.

"Weather is always a factor with pricing," she says. "We just need stable weather patterns in all regions to help the constant transition between districts."

With transitions occurring every couple of months from one region to another, Jewell says weather can adversely affect availability if one berry region transitions out and another starts late, creating gaps in shipments.

Franco Maggiore of Thomas Fruits et Legumes, Montreal, Quebec, says Chile has become an important producer and exporter to North America, as it has an ideal climate and rainfall to grow blueberries. 

"The blueberries we presently offer to retail stores are highbush and rabbiteye varieties from Chile," he says.

South America, in general, supplies more than 25% of the world's fresh blueberries today, Maggiore adds.

When it comes to maximizing blueberry sales, Fung says as volumes peak, big-pack promotions with 2-pound clamshells will drive retail sales. Oppy offers a full line of blueberry pack styles in the Ocean Spray label.

He also suggests cross-promoting blueberries with strawberries, blackberries and raspberries.

Jewell of Cal Giant agrees that during the peak season in the summer, pints and 18-ounce containers should be promoted. 

"We do a lot of consumer promotion of our brand of berries as we engage them and encourage purchases of our brand while providing recipe inspiration," Jewell says.