Price, appearance, health benefits and ripeness — in that order — are the top things consumers consider when making their fresh fruit and vegetable purchases.
That’s one of many findings in Arlington, Va.-based FMI – The Food Industry Association’s annual Power of Produce report, conducted by San Antonio-based 210 Analytics and made possible by the Southeast Produce Council (SEPC), Invafresh and Yerecic Label.
Among other highlights of the annual report include insights on consumers’ produce shopping habits related to health and well-being and heightened preference for locally grown and convenience options.
"In the past, the clear number one factor when buying fresh produce was appearance and quality,” said Rick Stein, vice president of fresh foods for FMI. “However, this year's survey showed that item price is now the number one factor produce consumers consider—on par with appearance and quality.”
In addition to price, consumers are focusing on items with prolonged shelf-life, buying less or finding substitutes, Stein added. At the same time, there are more shoppers concentrating on health and wellbeing when making fresh produce purchasing decisions and a strong desire for convenience.
Healthy, convenient, local
For almost all shoppers, picking from the produce aisle is considered an investment in personal health and wellbeing, according to the report.
Consumers increasingly associate fresh produce with digestive health, weight management and disease management. In fact, one-third of consumers who pay a lot of attention to health and nutrition tend to see fresh produce as playing a central role in their diet, and six in ten shoppers purchase fruits and vegetables to deliver on specific health benefits.
“This positive association has spurred higher demand for more information about nutrition, health benefits, recommended daily amounts, and other health-centric insights,” according to FMI.
Another reason Americans are buying more and more fresh fruits and vegetables is convenience, according to FMI. From pre-cut and pre-washed options to grab-and-go and ready-to-serve solutions, convenience remains the top value-add for produce shoppers. The report found that nearly half of shoppers frequently purchase convenient vegetable and fruit solutions.
Fifty-six percent of consumers say they want their produce department to carry more fruits and vegetables that are locally grown, followed by grown in the USA (54%). Such distinctions are most effective when paired with specific locally sourced definitions, like a certain mile radius or state lines.
However, the definition of the term differs depending on the area of the country in which the shopper lives and the generation to which they belong.
In the first half of 2021, produce shopping and consumption patterns slowly but surely trended back to their pre-pandemic normal, according to the report. However, the upswing in COVID-19 cases in the fall along with high inflation and supply chain challenges reversed many of those normalization trends.
“Shopping shifted back to fewer trips and more online purchases,” according to FMI. “Meals became home-centric once more.”
The 2022 Power of Produce offers insights into sales trends combined with shopper wants and needs in produce shopping, health and wellbeing, home cooking, convenience and more.
Fresh produce sales reached $71 billion in 2021, reflecting a 3.3% increase in dollars, according to IRI data. However, gains were inflation driven and volume sales were down 2%. Fresh produce engagement was down in household penetration and trips, which hurt volume sales. Fruit had a better year than vegetables, but also saw higher inflation.
The year-over-year decline in fresh produce consumption continued. In 2017, 66% of consumers ate fresh produce at least four days a week. Today, that is down to 54% of consumers.
Trip frequency is highly related to fresh produce consumption and the drop in trips amid the pandemic is hurting sales, according to the report. Shoppers point to better prices and promotions as the dominant way to grow consumption, followed by a more frequent rotation of new and seasonal items. Fruit consumption aspirations are high across all eating occasions. Vegetable consumption aspirations are highest for dinner and lunch.
In addition to closing the gap with fruit in snack occasions, vegetables have the opportunity to replace traditional starches. Fourteen percent of consumers do this frequently and 54% do so occasionally. Almost three-quarters of shoppers at least occasionally replace animal with plant protein, led by beans/peas/lentils and leafy greens.
Purchasing decisions: a closer look
Price is now on par with ripeness and appearance in fresh produce purchase decision-making, according to the report. At the same time that price is growing in importance, 82% report that fresh produce prices are somewhat were much higher in the fourth quarter of 2021. In response, 92% have made changes, led by focusing more on sales promotions and shelf-life to waste less at home. One in three shoppers are also buying less.
The inflationary conditions are prompting significant focus on list making and promotional activity, with 54% of shoppers frequently checking sales prices at the primary store and 27% across stores. Technology has made big inroads in how shoppers are checking promotions. In-store signage is still the biggest, but growing numbers of shoppers are using apps, websites, social media and texts.
While more people are making lists before going to the store, produce still has many opportunities to prompt unplanned purchases, led by seasonality, promotions and eye-catching displays, according to the report. Consumers also noted less variety and more out-of-stocks in the current marketplace. If not finding planned purchases, 43% buy other items but 36% visit different stores.
With 89% conversion across formats, the primary store largely dominates where consumers purchase fresh produce. But consumers like buying fresh fruits and vegetables in other places too, led by farmers’ markets (60%) and roadside produce stands (48%). A majority of consumers believe produce at farmers’ markets is fresher and of better quality.
About one-quarter of shoppers buy meal or produce-specific kits shipped to their home or bought in-store. In this case, 52% choose fruits and vegetables they’re most familiar with, while 48% like to be introduced to uncommon or seasonal varieties. Online shopping saw a bit of a decline from the highly elevated pandemic levels, but online produce conversion remains high with 86% buying at least some fresh produce online as well.
Additionally, people are ordering online more frequently than pre-pandemic. Two out of 10 online produce buyers only purchase some items online, instead of going in person to select items themselves. Employee training and the ability to indicate desired ripeness may help retailers grow online baskets. Other habits when placing online orders include a focus on online specials (79%), starting with the frequently purchased list (74%), and preferring each pricing (69%). Sixty percent of current online produce shoppers expect to continue to buy online.