It's been a bumpy few years for a little purple berry called açai.
First, in January 2009, the Better Business Bureau issued a nationwide alert for açai trial scams proliferating on the Internet. The bureau received thousands of complaints from consumers who had signed up for a free trial of the supplements, but then found $90 a month charged to their credit cards with no way to stop the shipments.
Then, in August 2009, Harpo Inc, producers of The Oprah Winfrey Show and The Dr Oz Show, filed a trademark infringement complaint against 40 Internet marketers of dietary supplements for falsely claiming that they have endorsed açai or other dietary supplements.
Despite this very public bad news, SPINS reports that açai sales were up by $10 million and nearly 10 percent in the FDM channel from August 2009 to August 2010, rising from $110.8 million to $121.7 million in all product categories.
But the bad press may be killing the enthusiasm of the more discerning natural channel shopper, where total açai product sales fell $5 million and more than 25 percent, from $20.9 million to $15.6 million.
"In the wake of the recent Oprah açai spam scams, consumers are increasingly skeptical of superfruit health benefits," said analysts in Mintel's May 2010 Functional Beverages report. "Manufacturers need to make a convincing argument that choosing these exotics over home-grown produce makes sense."
Kerry Watson, manager of SPINS Product Library, agrees. "We are starting to see a decrease in new product launches with açai as a primary ingredient in both channels compared to last year," Watson told FI. "This could be an indicator that the trend is slowing."
Finding the next niche
Perhaps the best strategy for product developers is finding the next best new niche for the antioxidant-rich fruit.
"Açai has been in our top 5, best-selling list for some time," said Steve Siegel, vice president of Ecuadorian Rainforest, a New Jersey supplier of superfruits, such as amla, breadfruit, goji, mangosteen and pomegranate.
"In terms of sales, it has gone through a cycle of being a novel food, to a super food, to a weightloss ingredient, in beverages. I think the ingredient itself has so many uses that it will sustain sales while morphing to fit into different categories. It is essentially the same ingredient, just different uses."
In the past year, the most popular açai platform in total dollar sales in the FDM channel was refrigerated juices and beverages ($27.6 million), up 1.2 percent from the previous year;s; followed by food supplements ($9.3 million), up 110.8 percent; and digestive aids and enzymes ($8.1 million), up 258.9 percent.
Outside of this refrigerated juice platform, however, sales of all other açai drinks went down the drain. Shelf-stable beverages were down 3.3 percent, açai -infused water was down 4.3 percent, shelf-stable juices fell -2.5%, açai teas slipped 15 percent, and ready-to-drink teas and coffees with açai took a freefall of 37.3 percent.
Other platforms on the downside included cold cereals (down 9.9 percent), energy bars and gels (down 43.8 percent), frozen desserts (down 5.6 percent), frozen fruits (down 37.5 percent), and vitamins and minerals (down 6.24 percent).
On the growth side: diet formulas with açai grew 390 percent, from $1.1 million to $5.5 million, with 559,000 units sold. Candy and individual snacks rose 98 percent to $146,243, with nearly 37,000 units sold. And yogurts and kefirs rose 60.6 percent with 66,000 units sold.
Appearing on the scene for the first time: herbal formulas netted $335,000 in product sales, and meal replacement powders reaped $18,000.
Chart: Acai sales