Growth in the UK asparagus market appears to have halted, according to findings presented by Finlays Fresh Produce business insights manager Heather Veal at last month's Asparagus Growers Association agronomy day.
"We saw a -0.1 per cent dip this season, so growth of recent years has levelled out," she told more than 100 growers assembled at the G's Fresh-owned Sandfields Farm in Worcestershire.
However, behind this statistic a realignment of sales has taken place, with Sainsbury's dropping nearly nine per cent having promoted asparagus less than in previous years, while Morrisons showed growth of nearly eight per cent and Asda 5.5 per cent, said Veal. Although asparagus's market penetration - the share of the total population who buy it - also rose by 5.5 per cent, this was outweighed by "cherry-pickers buying only when it was promoted", she added.
Further data from supermarkets' electronic point-of-sale systems showed an eight per cent rise in UK-grown sales volumes, contrasting with 36 per cent growth in imports. "There has been an eight per cent decline in the value of vegetable sales due to deflation, though premium veg is up 2.4 per cent."
Veal valued the UK asparagus market at £85m, of which £29m is sold during the 12-week British season. "Older customers account for 60 per cent of sales," she said. There is an opportunity to bring in younger shoppers, though you also have a loyal base that you don't want to lose."
Customers are buying smaller formats, with bundles in decline and tips up strongly, leading to reduced volumes overall, she pointed out. She suggested "quicker responses to supply flushes in the form of promotional activity" to boost future sales.
British season A window of opportunity
"While there has been strong growth, that has come down and it's been fairly static this year," said Asparagus Growers Association chairman Chris Chinn.
"Meanwhile, there is massive growth in imports. That's OK - they can be hand-in-hand with the British crop. But there is a clear window of opportunity to extend the British season. By its end there is a shortage."
The meeting was the largest gathering of UK asparagus growers in the past 10 years of agronomy days, he added.