(March 29) There’s good news: Annual banana consumption has increased from about 17 pounds per person in 1970 to about 28 pounds per person at the end of the millennium.

But banana marketers, competing against substantial growth in produce and snack options in that same time frame, have seen banana sales stagnate in the past five years, after a growth spurt in the early 1990s. Last year, the U.S. imported almost 8 billion pounds of bananas, and it’s still the largest importer of the fruit.

Tim Debus, vice president of the Alexandria, Va.-based International Banana Association, said a new survey on consumer preferences and their attitudes about bananas could guide the seven banana association member companies in their endeavors to increase consumption. Using the results from 32 one-on-one interviews with consumers in four U.S. markets, the association tailored a survey to understand why people do — or don’t — buy bananas. About 800 teens, young adults, parents, young singles and couples and senior citizens participated in the 2001 survey.

CONVICTIONS, BEHAVIOR

While 82% of the respondents said they love bananas or have a strong liking for the fruit, parents and seniors were the strongest consumers. Another encouraging factor: Most consumers believe they’re getting a good value when they buy a banana, and that the fruit equals healthy, guilt-free food. But when it comes to following through with their convictions, consumers aren’t putting their money where their mouth is.

“The behavior doesn’t follow through on a regular basis,” he said in mid-February, while addressing a crowd at the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Associaton’s 2002 convention in Orlando.

Debus, during the International Banana Association workshop, showed clips of the advertisements aimed at the MTV generation to demonstrate what fresh fruits are competing against.

“There’s a lot of competitive media out there, not just against bananas, but it takes away the attention of the consumer, of their thinking about bananas,” he said.

BREAKFAST, WEEKENDS

Consumers are more likely to reach for a banana at breakfast, snack and workout times. Younger people and parents, however, are more likely to skip breakfast, with 60% of the nonseniors saying they skip breakfast at least once a week.

“When you have a product that’s positioned well at breakfast and you’ve got people skipping it, obviously there’s an effect there as far as consumption is concerned,” Debus said. “It’s something that we can do as an industry to help position ourselves. You don’t need to skip it. If you’re in a hurry, grab a banana.”

Consumption also drops on the weekend, indicating that bananas fit with a routine, but sometimes lose out to other options when people are more flexible on Saturdays and Sundays.

Debus said several factors led the banana association to approach its members about paying for the research.

“The fact that the market wasn’t necessarily able to absorb more bananas, that’s why you see the decline. There was an oversupply situation,” he said. “I think we kind of said, ‘Why is that and why can’t we continue to grow this?’ There’s a lot that factors into that, not just supply and demand.”

The banana association has a marketing committee, but there aren’t immediate plans to use the survey results to tailor promotion programs. Instead, banana companies can use the information in their promotions.

“There’s a lot of interest in saying, ‘Look, these are areas that the IBA is perfect to work together as an industry’,” Debus said.