As consumer tastes become more daring, so the market for exotic fruit and veg has grown.

Consumer trends show that UK shoppers are becoming more adventurous when it comes to food - a trend that is all apparent in the fresh produce sector where exotic fruit and vegetables are showing impressive growth.

According to TNS Worldpanel, the tropical fruit market is worth an estimated £303m a year and is growing at a rate of 12%, based on information for the 52 weeks ending January 1, 2006. Overall, tropical fruit makes up nearly 9% of all fruit sold, and in 2005 an estimated 268,000 tonnes of tropical fruit was sold.

Melons are the largest sector of the market with a 35% expenditure share but have had an indifferent performance in the past year, claims TNS. The major growth has come from fruits such as avocado, mango, pineapples, dates and Sharon fruit - all growing above 20% year on year.

According to the Mango Association, market penetration of mangoes is now about 24%, compared with 11.5% five years ago. Mango Association chairman Chris Abram says: “The key issue for convenience stores is to supply fruit in condition for immediate eating. Ripening techniques have improved immeasurably over the past few years and this should help. However, we have to accept that mango isn’t convenient to eat in the same way as bananas or apples are, but an increasing amount of mango is being consumed in prepared form (fresh fruit salads and so on) and this area grows ahead of the market.”

While the majority of growth in exotic fruit and vegetables is being driven by the multiples, the sector still presents a big opportunity for c-stores. Danny Grover, category manager for fresh produce at Musgrave Budgens Londis (MBL), says that exotics are doing well in Budgens stores with sales growing at a rate of 10% year on year. “There’s a call for exotics in c-stores now,” he says. “Consumers are a lot more aware of these products through increased travel and trying them abroad, and there’s also been a lot of activity in the multiples, so shoppers begin to expect to see them in c-stores.

“TV chefs have also helped raise awareness as they cook with different ingredients such as pak choi,” adds Grover. “And magazines on cookery help to make consumers more open-minded. Health concerns are also driving consumers to healthier diets and experimenting more with fruit and vegetables.”

Key product areas for Budgens c-stores are mangoes and kiwis. “Mangoes have really crept up and are almost a regular purchase - they now account for 30% of exotic produce sales,” says Grover. “Retailers are also sourcing and selling better varieties because consumers want a better eat, so you no longer get stringy mangoes.”

MBL has also seen good growth in passion fruit, figs and pomegranates. “Pomegranates are really picking up, partly down to their promoted health benefits,” says Grover.

But he adds that retailers must get the time of year right. “For example, Turkish figs are fantastic in September,” he says. “If consumers try them when they’re good, they’re more likely to purchase again. Retailers must provide a choice and have a comprehensive range of important products like mangoes, but also leave some room for niche ones and introduce those seasonally. They must also be aware of their own demographics - that’s really important. Many c-stores in regions with big ethnic communities need to make sure they supply their customers with the products they want.”

Nick Cooper of Hudson’s, which operates upmarket c-stores in Wandsworth, Bow and soon in Battersea, London, has been selling exotic produce for about two years. Regular lines are mangoes, kumquats and various types of melons, but the company also tries more unusual products. “When we can get them, we sell all sorts of different exotic fresh and dried fruits such as papayas and guavas, and they sell well,” says Nick.

Depending on what’s on offer, exotic produce makes up 5-10% of Hudson’s total fruit and veg sales which, in the Wandsworth store, for example, contributes about £1,100 on a good week. “We have a very cosmopolitan customer base so they are used to buying these products at home where they come from,” explains Nick. “Or people might buy them because they’re entertaining and want to impress their guests with a weird starter or dessert. Our customers also tend to be very health conscious and if they fancy a change, when they see an exotic product, they might just grab it.”

But while exotic produce reaps rewards in the right location, getting into exotic produce is easier said than done, as Nick can testify. “It took a while for us to find out where to get hold of unusual products,” he says. “We weren’t getting what we wanted from our wholesalers so we had to go and find the products ourselves. That’s when we discovered the markets. Now, we have a couple of suppliers who deliver regularly, but when we’re not getting what we want from them, we go to New Covent Garden or Spitalfields markets; we just have to get up very early in the morning.

“It is hard to get consistent supplies of unusual products because we can’t offer them the volume, and once you do find a supplier, it’s often a struggle to get the products when you want them and at the price you want,” adds Nick. “Products often come from a smaller supplier so they’re not geared up for providing a consistent supply or customer service. It requires a lot of effort but it gives us a differentiation - the chances are others haven’t put the effort in.”

Nick admits that wastage is higher on exotic produce but is philosophical about it. “We accept wastage as a fact of life,” he says. “The more exotic you go, the greater chance of wastage you have, but that’s why we make the gross margin higher, to cover us. If they sell, they are very profitable.”

A Mintel report on exotic fruit and vegetables published in May 2002 claims that wider trends in the food market have also had some impact on exotics. “The percentage of vegetarians in the UK has grown since the late 1990s and meat reducers also form an important part of the market,” says the report. “Exotic fruit and vegetables can offer a wider range of alternatives for these groups.

“Many ethnic cuisines such as Indian and Chinese feature a large number of vegetable-based dishes which use these types of ingredients. Prepared mixes such as stir-fry packs and fruit salads also increasingly utilise exotic components to render a more premium profile, and this is a useful point of entry.”

There are few food categories that demonstrate the sort of yearly growth that exotic fruit and vegetables is showing, so now could be the time to get involved.

What any retailer needs to drive sales of fresh foods is mass. The more sales you have, the less wastage and the less forlorn your fruit will appear as it won’t have hung around on the shelf for too many days. A quick turnaround is essential. The same goes for wholesale.

NisaChill has in recent months attained a critical mass that allows it to explore all sorts of lines that would previously have been prohibitive in a small store. The lines now available are extensive and include those items more normally confined to the biggest multiples, such as sweet potatoes, baby corn, English asparagus, pomegranates and blueberries. The distributor’s aim is to provide the small store retailer with the choice of a superstore, packaged and priced as acceptable to the convenience shopper.

Mass has also allowed NisaChill to get much closer to individual growers to ensure that when produce such as raspberries are in season, Nisa retailers get the pick of the crop. Leaflets to talk up seasonal goods are available for retailers to display in-store, backed by regular advice for the retailers themselves on storage, serving tips and the all-important display.

No longer does produce in the neighbourhood sector have to be confined to tomatoes, iceberg lettuce, cucumbers, bananas, potatoes and apples. Orders into NisaChill show that there is demand for chillies, fresh herbs and exotics, alongside ready-washed garden veg, including part-cooked chilled chips and mixed salad for today’s time-pressed consumers.

In doubt? Then take a trip to the nearest M&S Simply Foods outlet and see why this division is enjoying such growth. It’s not all due to its chocolate puddings.

There’s a big upside for those stores that do it well - a pack of fresh fruit with fork at £1.49 can turn a profit of 25% for the NisaChill customer.

With fresh and chilled sales up 25% year on year for NisaChill, it’s clear it has a good grasp on which fresh and chill categories are hot, and which are not.

At NisaChill prepacked fresh meat sales are up 50% year on year; quorn is up; and ‘healthy choice’ options are on the up, be they ‘good for you’ fats or ‘bio’ drinks. Sausages, particularly those at the premium end, are on the up, as are fresh soups; the pastry category as a whole is declining. Chilled juice business is 60% up, and crayfish and rocket sandwiches are not the only seafood-based product selling well - the total seafood category, including ready meals, is growing.

Also put a watch on organic and child-specific or ‘fun size’ chiller lines.

MANGO Dubbed the ‘fruit of the future’ by the Mango Association, mangoes are available in the UK in more than 20 varieties.

More than 20 million tonnes of mangoes are grown in the tropics and sub-tropics, and the top exporters are India, Pakistan, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Brazil, Israel, South Africa and Peru.

In the UK, mangoes outsell fresh pineapples on a weekly basis and the two most popular varieties are ‘Kent’, a green fruit with a red blush and a rich, sweet flavour; and ‘Keitt’, a green mango with a non-fibrous flesh and mild, sweet flavour.

A mango is ready to eat when the skin is brightly coloured, the flesh is soft and the aroma sweet. Mangoes should not be refrigerated during the ripening process, but fully ripe mangoes can be stored in the fridge for up to one week.
A mango stored at 55°F will last for up to two weeks unrefrigerated.

Source: The Mango Association

Cravendale has launched a half-pint version of its fresh filtered milk. Described as ‘milk on the hoof’, the semi-skimmed milk will target impulse buyers and is the company’s first venture into on-the-go soft drinks.

A rolling launch will also see the new size added to Cravendale’s ‘Hint Of…’ range from March. The wild strawberry and vanilla flavoured milks were first introduced in a 1ltr carton format in September 2005.
The company believes the launch will add further growth to the dairy sector of the soft drinks market, which experienced year-on-year growth of 41% in 2004 (Britvic category report 2005).

Cravendale senior brand manager Thryth Jarvis says: “Every great drink brand has a ready-to-drink format, so Cravendale should be no exception."

Jarvis says the product’s main target is adult milk drinkers but she also expects the format to appeal to teenagers as well as parents looking to provide children with a healthy drink or snack. Jarvis recommends retailers place the half-pints within the chilled sandwich or drinks fixture, adding: “Our research concluded that the product will be consumed as a snack or at lunchtime, so its location is absolutely key."

Cravendale 284ml has a rrp of 45p, while Hint Of... will retail at 69p.

Wyke Farms is introducing a mini butter product aimed at consumers who eat butter occasionally as a treat. Truly Scrumptious Mini Farmhouse Butter is a pack of 18x7g butter portions and has an introductory rrp of 99p. The rrp will eventually rise to £1.30.

Unilever is launching its Vie Shot range in single pack formats. Vie Shot Singles come in two varieties - apple, carrot & strawberry, and banana, pumpkin & kiwi - and have a rrp of 79p. The new range will benefit from a £10m marketing spend this year, which includes TV advertising and sampling.

Müllerlight yogurts have been revamped with a ‘Best Ever Even Fruitier’ range, plus a line of Smooth Style yogurts. All 15 flavours will be thicker and creamier with more fruit as well as added probiotics. The six-pack Smooth Style Müllerlight yogurts will be joined by two new flavours - apricot & rhubarb, and a limited-edition smooth banana & custard. The six-pack has a rrp of £1.49, and the two new single pack flavours retail at 39p.

Organic dairy brand yeo valley has launched its first range of ‘inner health’ products into the fastest growing sector of the yogurt market. Inner Balance yogurts claim to be rich in fibre, minerals and Omega vitamins, and are enriched with five types of seed and grains. There are three flavours: peach, vanilla and strawberry. A TV campaign will support the launch, followed by press ads and a sampling roadshow.

Primula is relaunching its range of dips with new recipes and an updated look. The range includes spicy salsa, roasted garlic, spring onion, sour cream & chive, and nacho cheese. Rrp is 99p.

Supplier: Wyke Farms

Background: There has been cheesemaking and dairy farming in the Wyke Farms area for centuries. There were more than 3,500 cheese makers when farmer’s wife Ivy Clothier first made Cheddar from the family’s herd in the early 1900s. Ivy’s cheese and butter recipes soon became renowned for their rich, creamy flavours and texture, and Wyke Farms is now one of fewer than 20 farmhouse cheese makers in the Cheddar region. Ivy Clothier’s sons and grandchildren continue to carry on the family tradition of cheesemaking today.

This year the company is giving more newspaper and magazine advertising support to its flagship Wyke brand, which is the only national brand that has a farm-to-plate story. It is also poised to launch a new convenience-targeted mini butter product called Truly Scrumptious Mini Farmhouse Butter (see product news, p61).

Recent launches: Half-fat Leskol cheese; a Leskol snack pack which is about to be rolled out to convenience stores following a trial in Asda and which contains five 25g half-fat cheese portions; and really strong TNT Cheddar, shaped like a stick of dynamite.

Distribution area: National distribution through wholesalers, independents and multiples.

Retailer: Sunder Sandher, Londis, Leamington Spa, Warwickshire

Fresh strategy: The fresh and chilled category has become so important to Sunder Sandher that in June this year he will triple the size of his store and increase the amount of space dedicated to fresh from 6m to 15m.

But he hasn’t always been convinced by the category. “I used to be totally against it because I was scared of the wastage,” he says. “Londis persuaded me to give it a try and guaranteed that I would see an increase in sales.”

And Londis was right. “Londis tracked what people were purchasing through my epos and discovered that I was making a lot of mistakes. We had a whole bay dedicated to long-life juices and eggs that was taking up too much space so we took that out and put in new items, including fruit and salads,” says Sunder. “We immediately saw sales increase by 10-20%, and then, five months later, we’re up 50%, and grocery sales have increased as well as a result.”

Sunder says the key to a successful chilled category is to keep on top of it all the time. “We have a member of staff dedicated to the fresh section and checks on it every hour or so,” he explains. He also says that retailers must not be scared to try new items or let the wastage put them off.
“The wastage is compensated for by the extra revenue - there’s a good mark-up with fruit and vegetables. Retailers should start by stocking the basic items first, and if that is going well, slowly bring in more delicate items.”