$200 for a bunch of grapes? Sure

Supermarkets here say sales rising; premium Japanese fruits regarded as sweeter, tastier

A bunch of grapes with a price tag of more than $200. A melon going for almost $160. And apples at $10 each. At such prices, it is obvious these are no garden-variety fruits.

They are premium Japanese imports, known for their flavour and quality. They include muscat grapes, mikan or Japanese mandarin orange, and Japanese musk melon.

Despite their eye-popping prices, they are increasingly popular among consumers here.

Isetan Supermarket has seen a 15 to 30 per cent rise in sales over the last two years. Meidi-Ya Supermarket has seen 3 to 5 per cent growth over the last five years.

Even homegrown supermarket chain FairPrice is seeing rising demand for premium Japanese fruits. It started selling them in 2009 at selected outlets, and in the last two years, sales have risen byup to 20 per cent.

  • Pricey fruits 

  • LIMITED-EDITION DOLE GOKUSEN BANANAS

    500 yen (S$5.60) per banana

    Launched last year by fresh food producer Dole, these bananas sport a serial number printed on their skin and come in a special gift box. Only 59 went on sale. To make the cut, each banana had to be at least 23cm long and weigh at least 200g, according to a Dole press statement. Most regular bananas weigh in at about 100g each. Dole says these bananas, which are grown only on plantations that are 500m above sea level, are sweeter and more fragrant than other varieties.

  • TAIYO NO TAMAGO MANGOES

    300,000 yen (S$3,350) for two

    The pair of mangoes was sold at an auction to a department store in Fukuoka in April. Grown in Kyushu's Miyazaki prefecture, mangoes sold under the Taiyo no Tamago label are selected under strict criteria. Each fruit must weigh at least 350g and have high sugar content of at least 15 per cent. The mangoes are thus known to be very juicy and sweet.

  • YUBARI MELONS

    1.5 million yen (S$16,700) for a pair

    Grown in Japan's northern Hokkaido island, the first pair of Yubari melons that went under the hammer this year was sold in May to a Hokkaido fruit wholesaler. It was considered a bargain, being far short of the 2.5 million yen record last year.

    The melons are considered a status symbol, as the high prices reflect the buyer's desire for prestige. The fruits are known for their unique smooth rind and are very sweet, with a rich musky aroma.

    Jasmine Osada

Mr Victor Chai, FairPrice's director of fresh and frozen products, said: "Feedback has been positive, especially with regard to quality."

Cold Storage, which has been selling Japanese fruits for about five years, said sales have been "achieving strong growth".

While these expensive fruits are popular among the Japanese community here, more Singaporeans are buying them, too.

Mr Tai Lik Xon, 39, is a fan of premium Japanese fruits. He recently bought a punnet of grapes for $39 from Isetan Supermarket. Said the marketing director: "The grapes are more flavourful and tasty, compared to ordinary grapes... But I seldom get the chance to try them as my parents eat them all."

Isetan Supermarket's division merchandising manager Lim Tay Beng estimated that Singaporeans make up 80 per cent to 90 per cent of its customers.

Meidi-Ya's managing director Nagoshi Shuji said 70 per cent of buyers are Singaporean.

Many of the Singaporean customers buy them as corporate gifts.

"They are big names in the business scene. They usually purchase hundreds of dollars worth of Japanese fruits per visit," said Mr Lim.

Mr Kurihara Satoshi, manager of Isetan Supermarket's fruit section, added: "We just had a regular customer who bought 12 boxes of muscat grapes at $229 per box."

Mr Shiraishi Shinji, head chef and owner of Japanese restaurant Shiraishi at The Ritz-Carlton, Millenia Singapore hotel, said it is the natural sweetness of Japanese fruits that makes them so delicious.

"To produce fruits of such high quality, Japanese farmers will prune off excess buds so that each plant or tree produces a limited number of fruits," he explained.

"For example, a melon plant may have 20 buds, but farmers will remove most of them so only eight remain. This means the fruits will get the maximum amount of nutrients."

The upward trend in premium fruit demand comes as consumers here regain confidence in Japan's fresh produce, years after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, which sparked global fears of radioactive contamination of food.

Mr Nagoshi said Meidi-Ya's sales of Japanese fruits and vegetables were badly hit after the disaster, while Isetan's Mr Lim said sales in 2011 and 2012 saw a drastic drop.

According to the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority, the quantity of fruits imported from Japan fell from 400 tonnes in 2010 to 240 tonnes in 2011, and to 220 tonnes in 2012. Confidence and demand began to return in 2013. Last year, 490 tonnes were imported.

All food products from Japan still require a Certificate of Origin to identify the prefecture where it was produced. The AVA also does not allow the import of agricultural produce from areas in Fukushima prefecture, as well as from a zone 20km around the nuclear plant.

Ms Jessie Kok, 32, said she regularly buys Japanese fruits for her family because they are sweeter and one can be assured of their quality. The housewife, who is married to a Japanese Singaporean, said that even her 15-month-old son can taste the difference.

"The first strawberries he tasted were Japanese, and he enjoyed them," she said.

"But when we bought American strawberries, he made a very funny face after eating them."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 09, 2015, with the headline 'Pricey fruits $200 for a bunch of grapes? Sure'. Print Edition | Subscribe