Changing consumers’ shopping behavior can be tricky, but the pandemic has definitely changed where people purchase and access fresh produce, and produce companies that know how to leverage their strong brand identities in this changing world can reap huge benefits.   

“Online shopping of fresh items gained wider exposure during COVID-19 to a segment of consumers that otherwise may have been slow adopters,” said Tom Thompson, chief revenue officer for Owatonna, Minn.-based greenhouse lettuce specialist Revol Greens. “There is also natural growth within the online channel as options for home delivery become more sophisticated, resulting in a better delivery experience.”

A big reason Americans are much more comfortable buying produce and other fresh items online is their confidence in their instore shoppers, Thompson said. Increasingly, those shoppers, he said, know when a salad is short-dated or when an avocado isn’t at the right level of ripeness.

Historically, produce has been more challenging to market digitally than typical consumer packaged goods since each fruit and vegetable is a unique piece that shoppers often want to first examine, said Bil Goldfield, director of corporate communications for Charlotte, N.C.-based Dole Food Co.

But with the onset of Covid, and the continued popularity of ready-to-eat products like packaged salad kits and meal starter kits, consumers have proven much more likely to put aside their reservations and buy fresh fruits and vegetables online.

Dole uses both Instacart and retailer-specific e-commerce sites to sell its fresh fruit and vegetable products online and has seen steady growth in these platforms since the pandemic, especially in the area of new products, Goldfield said.


Easing the way

Brand familiarity can play a big role in smoothing that transition from brick-and-mortar to digital, Goldfield said.

“Most fruits and vegetables have broad awareness across all shopper demographics, which reduces shopper anxiety regarding trial purchases,” Goldfield said. “Online consumers are experienced and know what they’re getting. The desire for fresh produce, for immune boosting nutrition and exotic fruits and vegetables to relieve meal fatigue, saw an increase during the pandemic, giving retailers a unique opportunity to leverage this shopper impulse to try something new while also appealing to everyday favorites like bananas, pineapples, apples and oranges.”

While the same rules for merchandising fresh fruits and vegetables apply online – the produce must be displayed well and immediately available – e-retailers have the advantage of being able to link to recipes, serving suggestions, product and nutrition information and even grower and sustainability details much more seamlessly in the digital space, Goldfield said.

Thompson agreed that online marketplaces can be great showcases for brands. An online selling environment, he said, allows a greater opportunity for brands to engage with their intended audience and tell their story.

“The ability to showcase key messaging around sustainability attributes, unique product characteristics or simply the use of great imagery are all advantages in storytelling to the online shopper.”


First impressions

Revol Greens optimizes its online shopping experience for consumers by ensuring it has amazing product imagery and a detailed product description.

But those aspects fall into the “table stakes” category, so high has the bar been raised online, Thompson. Building from that base, Thompson said, Revol Greens is committed to figuring out how to better reach potential consumers through shopper marketing campaigns.

“That’s critical to our program’s success.”

The proof is in the numbers: online sales for Revol Greens have grown at a higher rate than its brick-and-mortar sales, Thompson said.

That strong online performance will soon lead to announcements that Revol Greens is partnering with key retailers to offer its products to consumers and meet them where they are shopping — from providing access to sustainable lettuces at local grocery stores to supplying product in bulk at club warehouses, Thompson said.

Trust is key in buying produce online, Goldfield said, and brands like Dole have been able to own that trust after delivering positive, quality product experiences for generations.

In fact, he added, brand equity may be even more important in the digital space where shoppers can’t rely on traditional means of decision-making, product inspection and confirmation of quality.

“Retailers are realizing this as a key advantage of established brands, and Dole is stepping up to work with its partners online to increase shopper relevancy and digital targeting,” he said. “Dole leverages its brand power for online shoppers in all areas of produce, but especially in packaged salads.”

Since some of Dole’s retail partners lack the space to display the brand’s entire salad line, Dole relies on online marketing and promotion to communicate new product launches and the full breadth of its salad kit product roster, Goldfield said.

Dole has increased its focus on retailer digital and e-commerce marketing with relevant offers, inspiration and recipes throughout the online shopping experience.

The company often adds a digital element to in-store shopping with QR codes on collateral such as banana stickers, pineapple tags and salad packaging that bring shoppers to to learn more about produce, promos, nutrition, recipes and more.

Using tools like Instacart as a vehicle to assist in launching new Dole products has gained significant online traction with customers, Goldfield said. Dole has increased its partnerships with Instacart and other retailers in recent years to support the introduction of new product lines and extensions, with most enjoying a track record of success.

Dole also has had great success with third-party partnerships and co-promotions in the digital space. The online healthy living campaigns the company has implemented as part of its multiyear nutritional collaboration with The Walt Disney Company has helped it broaden its reach to many more groups of fresh produce lovers.

Past campaigns have been themed to Disney’s Beauty and Beast, Disney & Pixar’s Incredibles 2, Marvel Studios’ Captain Marvel, Disney’s Frozen 2 and a “Fruit & Vegetables Don’t Have to be Scary” initiative themed to Disney & Pixar’s Monsters, Inc., among others.


How to do it: a case study in utilizing the power of branding online

During National Salad Month in May 2021, Charlotte, N.C.-based Dole Food Co. utilized an array of online tactics including digital and social media, PR and blogger/influencer partnerships to actively promote the health, taste and convenience benefits of Dole packaged salads, and some of the dozens of Dole salad recipes on

Melanie Marcus, MA, RN, Dole’s in-house dietitian and nutrition and health communications manager, shared salad recipes, serving suggestions and related content to hundreds of thousands of salad enthusiasts through social media and blogger posts, streaming videos, online PR and the Dole Nutrition News, the company’s monthly healthy-living e-newsletter.