When COVID-19 shutdowns began in mid-March, sales of frozen produce saw an immediate and significant spike. According to the June 15, 2020 Retail Market Insights report from the McLean, Va.-based American Frozen Food Institute, dollar sales of frozen produce increased 67% from March 8-29 compared to the same period the previous year.
But as governors across the country begin to relax shelter-in-place directives, demand for frozen produce is slowly returning to pre-pandemic norms. For the week ending June 7, dollar sales gains compared to the previous year decreased to 22.3%, indicating a consumer shift toward fresh produce.
“People are getting outside more,” says Chris Veillon, chief marketing officer of Pure Hothouse Foods Inc., an Ontario-based grower of peppers, cucumbers, eggplant and tomatoes under the Pure Flavor brand. “Social distancing bubbles are slowly increasing. That means people are reuniting with friends and family they have not seen face-to-face in months, which creates more meal and entertaining opportunities.”
Fresh Produce on the Rise
For Matthews, N.C.-based Harris Teeter, which operates more than 230 stores in seven states and the District of Columbia, fresh produce sales increased sharply during the pandemic, and show no sign of slowing down.
“Sales for my location increased by more than 25% and are still increasing,” says Produce Manager Ricky Morrison. “With restrictions being lifted, this has become the new normal for America. I feel like the majority of people would rather cook at home than sit around a bunch of strangers and eat. And when it comes to fresh produce, who doesn’t want things that are fresh and appealing?”
This summer, Morrison is promoting local produce from North Carolina and regional produce from South Carolina, Georgia and Virginia. “We showcase items like yellow squash, zucchini, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, cucumbers, red potatoes, peaches, eggplant, Vidalia onions and blueberries,” he says. The stores are also featuring soft fruits such as peaches, plums, apricots and pluots.
Great deals on hot summer items such as corn, cherries and watermelon are always a big draw, he said, but packaged items are currently seeing the largest amount of growth in Harris Teeter’s produce department.
“Customers will buy packaged items before anything else,” Morrison says. “It's the convenience, but it’s also knowing that the items have not been continuously touched by random people.”
Morrison isn’t doing anything special to promote organic produce in late summer and fall, because sales have held steady. “We're not doing anything different than we’ve always done, which is keeping a full, fresh variety of organics,” he says. “Organic produce gets a lot of attention, and our customers don't care how much it costs. Everyone wants to be healthy nowadays.”
For Hy-Vee stores, the early days of the pandemic brought a major shift in customers’ produce-buying habits. “We went from doing normal business to what seemed like an overnight change,” says Ronnie Minteer, produce manager of a Hy-Vee in Springfield, Ill. “Customers were buying four to five times what they usually did. Shoppers who normally purchase one or two apples were now buying multiple pounds at a time. People who may have previously bought 5 pounds of russet potatoes were now purchasing 10 pounds or more.”
As shelter-in-place restrictions begin to lift, however, customers are no longer sticking to the produce staples that carried them through the early pandemic months.
“Categories like berries are increasing in popularity because it seems customers are becoming bored with the items they were initially buying and storing for long periods of time,” Minteer says. “We have seen notable increases in bagged salads, mushrooms, berries and cherries. Also, we are experiencing one of the best years since I’ve been a produce manager for soft fruit sales. Seasonal items are really doing well for us.”
Before the pandemic, Hy-Vee stores relied on sampling to showcase various produce items. Now, associates are employing new tactics. “My team and I have been keeping an eye out for anyone who appears to be contemplating or questioning their purchase of a particular produce item,” Minteer says. “We engage the customer and say, ‘This item is on us!’ We want customers to have the opportunity to explore new items, and this is our solution. Since we cannot allow them to taste produce in the store, we give them the item to try at home, without any pressure.”
Hy-Vee has also created appealing displays and signage to attract customers’ attention and provide as much information as possible about produce offerings. In addition, Minteer is stepping up merchandising efforts. For example, corn on the cob is displayed alongside corn holders, and cherry pitters are merchandised with the cherries.
When choosing which items to showcase, Minteer is targeting those with the most stable availability. While the market for strawberries is currently challenging, he says the supply for soft fruits such as peaches is solid.
“Soon, it will be U.S. grape season,” he says, “so we will feature many varieties like Cotton Candy, Moon Drop and Gum Drop. As long as we have the confidence that we can get the product right now, we are willing to push anything.”
Keeping Up With Shifting Demand
For growers such as Pure Hothouse Foods, the pandemic brought a major surge in demand. While sales slowed down a bit for the first few weeks of April, sales are now climbing across all of the company’s product categories. “We are shipping more product than we ever have before,” Veillon says, “and we continue to see an increased demand week over week for greenhouse-grown vegetables.”
Packaged items and snacking vegetables such as the company’s Snacking Series tomatoes continue to be hot sellers as safety-conscious consumers seek out pre-packaged foods. While Pure Hothouse’s organic produce sales fell behind those of conventional sales in the early stages of the pandemic, interest in organics is now on the rise.
In the coming months, the grower plans to focus its promotional efforts on the Pure Flavor Craft House Collection of culinary-focused packaged produce, which includes baby eggplant, mini-San Marzano tomatoes, sweet peppers and the line’s newest addition, shishito peppers.
“We are actively creating content to promote digitally using a variety of social channels and influencers, targeting the regions where we have the highest sales concentration,” Veillon says. “From recipes to product information, we are giving our consumers all the information they need to get the most out of their purchases.”