Yes, Safeway has its own bananas

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The Independent Online
It might look like a piece of fruit, but to Britain's third largest supermarket chain the banana is a powerful weapon in the ongoing battle for high street supremacy.

Safeway has become the first British retailer to sell own-brand bananas and claims the move will mean a better deal for consumers. The own-label fruit, distinguished by a red Safeway sticker on each bunch, went on sale this week at one-third of the company's 371 shops, signalling the start of supermarket banana wars.

Despite their place in comic songs and slapstick gags, bananas are big business. The fruit is the largest-selling line by volume in Britain's supermarkets, with the total market worth around pounds 600m a year.

Justin Farrington-Smith, a Safeway buying controller, said that introducing own-brand bananas allowed the store greater control over its produce and would give customers a guarantee of quality.

"Our bananas have to be between 15 and 21cm long and ripen to a very specific yellow," he said. "Having our own label on them means they have to come up to our specifications, they can't be sold off elsewhere if we don't want them, and that means the supplier has to meet our standards."

Safeway already sells other own-brand fresh produce, including apples and kiwi fruits. The latest deal took 16 months to finalise, largely because of the complex quota arrangements governing banana imports.

Former Caribbean colonies have a protected share of the European Union market under a deal designed to protect jobs on islands where half the population can work in the banana trade.

Supplies of Latin American bananas, grown on massive plantations and said to be larger and sweeter, as well as cheaper, are limited despite pressure from Germany and the United States to relax the restrictions.

Safeway's bananas are supplied from Equador by the farming giant Naboa and will be sold alongside branded bunches from Fyffes and Geest at the same price of 39p per pound. The variety of banana, the Cavendish, is already widely available.

Yesterday, Sainsbury, Tesco and Waitrose all said that they had no plans to follow Safeway's example. But at a time when supermarkets are fighting hard to increase their market share through saver cards and high- profile advertising campaigns, city analysts say Safeway's decision will help bolster its profile.

One said: "Food retailing is one of the most competitive markets in the UK, there are good-quality companies chasing after a static market. This is a shrewd move for Safeway, they are in a win-win situation because it has an impact on the public and own labels cut out at least one middleman, so they are more profitable."

However, a spokesman for the Food Commission questioned how much the change would benefit shoppers. "The British think a banana is a banana. We don't get to see the different varieties in the supermarkets so consumer choice is quite limited."