Bananas, the UK's most popular fruit, are estimated to be worth at least £600m in sales this year. That represents around 725,000 tonnes, according to David Read, chariman of importer-funded promotional organisations the Banana Group.

"The fruit's success has been meteoric by any standards. From the 1930s to the 1980s consumption was pretty consistent, ranging between 300,000 and 350,000 tonnes," he says. "But in the past 17 years it has increased by 150%, a result unparalleled in the rest of the fruit market which has only recorded figures of some 15% since 1984." 

Consumption appeared to be levelling in 2001, but Laurence Swan, vice chairman and marketing director of Fyffes, which imported the first bananas from Jamaica more than 100 years ago, is convinced this does not represent a plateau. "There were good reasons for lack of growth last year," he says. "A great many changes in the UK and Continental banana markets, resulted in the consolidation of supply. Also, a stop was put to a substantial amount of fruit illegally imported into the EU over two years. 

"In addition last summer was a strong year for soft fruits, and banana sales were badly hit in the competition."
Swan's confidence is based on the fact that the Banana Group's initial annual consumption target of 20lb per capita has been exceeded. This now stands at 26.6lb, representing consumption of about two fruits a week per head, although it is far lower than in many other parts of the EU. 

As far as the multiples are concerned, bananas represent the key item in fresh produce, generating profit as the competition increases. 

Tony DeNunzio, Asda's chief operating officer, has gone on record as saying: "Bananas are a very important economic barometer and the bestselling item in every store." 

The Banana Group plans to ensure they continue in this vein and has launched a series of summer initiatives aimed at boosting consumer awareness. These include giant fruit' mingling with the Wimbledon crowds and support for GMTV's Get Up and Give campaign. In the retail arena there will be a series of instore promotions while Tesco has supported the annual sponsored Race for Life in aid of cash for cancer research. Sainsbury is stocking copies of the BG's new brochure, "One hundred years of feelgood fuel", marking the centenary of bananas' appearance on shelf and emphasising that they are convenience energy fruit. 

Latest figures from TNS show, the multiples' share of total sales continues upwards. While there are regular promotions, the pricing structure has remained stable. Bananas retail all year at between 108p-119p kg.
In store, the fruit is being given more shelf space, often specially designed with padding to reduce bruising, with the dual benefit of improved quality and less waste. In addition, standalone island sites have begun to appear ­ one of the latest being the Energy branded unit at Marks and Spencer. 

Most supermarkets offer about six lines at any one time and, while the majority of fruit is sold loose in hands ­ including single, large and even individually priced bananas ­ most retailers offer a wider choice of pre-packs. Pester power has been harnessed with special kids' packs using smaller fruit often linked to promotional offers.
One of the most recent developments has been polybagged fruit at different stages of ripeness, designed to appeal to once-a-week shoppers. These carry the multiples' own descriptive labels such as Eat Me/Keep Me (Tesco); Now and Later (Sainsbury), and Home Ripened (Asda). While these appear to sell well, trade sources say this style of pack has not been universally successful and some have been discontinued. 

Interest in developing speciality lines such as red, mini or apple banana varieties is growing. Most retailers class the latter as exotics because they are fragile and need to be punneted. 

Banana sourcing focuses on the British Caribbean and South and Central America. Sales are in the hands of specialist suppliers which have direct links with growers and can provide shipping, distribution and ripening facilities in the UK. As a result, bananas enjoy substantial brand awareness. Main players are Fyffes, JP Fruit, Keelings, Mack Multiples, SH Pratt & Co, and Windward Bananas, using both their own long established brands and those of international groups such as Dole and Chiquita. 

The arrival of the Fairtrade label has met with degrees of success. Total annual EU imports are more than 11,000 tonnes, and 25% of sales are in Switzerland. 

There are signs that UK interest is growing after the Co-ops spearheaded imports, swiftly followed by Sainsbury and now Asda. According to agricultural consultant Promar International, Fairtrade represents around 1% of the UK market, although its suppliers are spread across the Windward Isles, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Costa Rica and Ghana. 

Fairtrade hopes that growth will come from the development of retail category management. It sees as benefits the availability of full traceability, and consumers' willingness to support developing countries' suppliers.