Fresh Food

Fresh Produce Continues Surge; Frozen and Canned Varieties Also Soar

Will the rising tide lift all boats in grocery?
fresh produce
Photograph: Shutterstock

Produce sales are rising along with consumer anxiety levels. IRI found 58% of consumers were extremely concerned about COVID-19, commonly known as the coronavirus, the week of March 22, up from 38% the week before. 210 Analytics, IRI and the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) partnered to understand the effect for produce.

Produce continues to move at unprecedented volumes across the store, regardless of where or what format it is sold, per IRI’s total U.S. multioutlet report for the week ending March 22, which found fresh produce up 29.7%, frozen up 111.4% and shelf-stable up 158.1%.

“During these unprecedented times, everyone is coming together to help produce move from where it is to where it needs to go,” said Joe Watson, VP of membership and engagement for PMA. “Matching distributors’ abilities with retailer needs, running at double the normal volume, rerouting product from foodservice to retail, consumer-direct solutions, new partnerships like small bakeries selling produce items and donations to food banks, this industry is doing it all to meet the consumer demand for produce.”

Fresh Produce Weekly Gains During March

The inflection point in shopping behavior was the week of March 1, when nonedibles started to gear up, but fresh produce sales gains were still much in line with trends seen in 2019—ranging from -1.7% (fresh fruit) to 1.2% (fresh vegetables). Produce sales started to rise the subsequent week, at 3.1%, followed by a 33.9% increase the week ending March 15. For the week ending March 22, IRI showed vegetables up 39.2%—adding $227 million vs. the comparable week in 2019. Fruits gained 21.1% over the week of March 22, which translated into an additional $116 million.

“Our warehouse got wiped out after the first big wave of panic buying,” said Mike Kamphaus, president and CEO of Peirone Produce, Spokane, Wash. “While the huge sales took the headlines, the positive attitude of our retail customers and our vendor partners is really the most impressive backstory. They employed lots of creative solutions to get product back into our supply chain and out to our customers in record time. I would also call out the efforts of my warehouse workforce, many of which worked double shifts, and our drivers who ran lots of extra routes to keep our retail customers in business. Forty years of being in business and I am still awed by the resilience and resourcefulness of our people.”


Week by Week Sales Growth of Produce

Source: IRI, total U.S., multioutlet


Rising Tide Lifts All Boats

Sales increases extended across fresh produce items. In absolute dollars, the biggest fresh produce winners for the week of March 22 were once again potatoes, which gained $61 million, or 114.7%, over the comparable week in 2019. “The surge in potato sales these past few weeks has far surpassed even the level we see during the end-of-year holidays,” said the produce director for a large retailer in the Northeast.

Berries were second, with a gain of $28 million, or 23.5%. Onions closed out the top three, with gains of $27 million, or 68.6%. Others that gained big were lettuce, apples, tomatoes, tangerines, bananas, oranges and carrots. Several retailers remarked that items with a longer shelf life, as well as packaged items, moved faster, perhaps due to consumer safety perceptions.

“Consumers often touch, pinch and smell fresh produce items before selecting the ones they want,” said Watson of PMA. “Along with our retail partners, we advise shoppers to wash their hands before and after store visits, minimize touching produce items and to wash/clean fresh produce properly once home. With proper handling, there should be no concerns about eating fresh produce.”

Fresh Fruit Weekly Sales Shine Brighter 

Fresh fruit sales saw a slightly bigger uptick during the week of March 22 than the week prior—no doubt to address the many more at-home consumption occasions, from more at-home breakfasts, lunches and dinners to snacking and smoothies. On the fruit side, berries generated 22% of fruit sales, yet grew 23.5%. Similarly, apples generated more than 15% of all fruit sales and grew 28%.


Top 10 in Weekly Sales (Fresh Fruit)

Source: IRI, total U.S., multioutlet


Fresh Vegetable Purchases Favor Pantry Staples

On the fresh vegetable side, shoppers are stocking up on items with a longer shelf life, in particular. Beyond potatoes, other impressive growth categories were onions, carrots and squash.


Top 10 in Weekly Sales (Vegetables)

Source: IRI, total U.S., multioutlet


Fresh Vs. Frozen and Shelf-Stable

Consumers continued to split their produce dollar three ways during the week of March 22. "Fresh produce generates the bulk of total produce sales during regular times and it still does today,” said Jonna Parker, principal of IRI’s Fresh Center of Excellence. “The size of the pie is one of the reasons why fresh produce growth percentages are lower than that of frozen and shelf-stable. However, consumers remained in a stock-up mindset the week of March 22 and that drove high interest in frozen and shelf-stable fruit and vegetables. The share of total cross-store produce sales for shelf-stable, for instance, is up from 10% during 2019 to 19% during the week ending March 22, 2020.”


Share of Total Store Produce Sales

Source: IRI, total U.S., multioutlet; 2019 calendar year vs. week ending March 22, 2020


Canned vegetables once more saw the highest percentage gains, at 207.9%, followed by frozen vegetables and frozen fruit.

In part, these spikes can be attributed to the combination of panic buying and freezer stocking. “We are finding that among consumers who are stocking up, the top goal is having a two-week supply,” said Parker. However, the sales surges address the increased everyday need as well. The increase in home-cooked meals is a given with mandated restaurant/restaurant seating area closures around the country.

IRI found for the week of March 22, 56% of consumers ate more meals at home vs. at or from a restaurant. But also consider the fact that universities and schools are closed, which means many students moved back home. In Florida, for instance, 350,000 students live on campus. Consider their added three meals per day plus snacks at home—that is 1 million more meals consumed at home per day, for Florida students alone.

Next, consider the people working from home and all the elementary and high school students at home, which means many more at-home breakfast, snack and lunch occasions. Also consider that all sports and evening activities have been canceled, leaving more time for parents to create a home-cooked dinner. “We found that among households with kids, 69% have kids staying home from school or day cares vs. 38% the week prior, and 47% are doing fewer activities and sports,” said Parker.

Consumers are also looking to boost their nutritional intake and build their immune systems, and from their buying patterns, it certainly appears produce matters during times of crisis.

Perimeter Performance

Boosted by an increase of 91.3% in meat, the total perimeter increased 45.1%, while center store edibles increased 80.2%.


Total Store and Perimeter Look

Source: IRI, total U.S., multioutlet


Floral Wilts

While fresh produce is seeing big increases over the comparable week in 2019, floral is struggling amid COVID-19.


Fresh Produce and Floral

Source: IRI, total U.S., multioutlet


It is important to remember that the produce sales surges at retail are only possible thanks to the work of the entire grocery and produce supply chains, from farm to retailer.

210 Analytics and IRI will continue to provide weekly updates as sales trends develop, made possible by PMA. 

Anne-Marie Roerink is principal of 210 Analytics, which specializes in research for the food retailing industry and authors studies in meat, produce, bakery, deli, frozen, confectionery, snacks and retail operations. She can be reached at aroerink@210analytics.com.

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