Don’t Just Bloom Where You’re Planted — The Three Immutable Laws Of Produce Marketing

Don’t Just Bloom Where You’re Planted

by Rick Stein, Vice President, Fresh Foods, for the Food Marketing Institute

April 2019 – Plants, by their nature, spread as they grow. Growers, by their nature, often add new types of plants to their fields and orchards over the years.

As consumers are browsing produce from more places and seeking greater overall variety in their diets, it might not be the time to merely stick to your roots.

Findings from the recently released 2019 Power of Produce report, which looks at the produce category from consumers’ eyes, underscores the importance of offering shoppers more choices, spanning diversity of selections, growing methods and product formats and packaging, among other attributes. Put simply, success in produce at retail isn’t about bringing in consumers who haven’t eaten produce, but encouraging new occasions and a chance to trade up to more value-added options.

It’s tempting to rest on your laurels in this industry, when 97 percent of shoppers say they eat fresh fruits and vegetables at least once a week and when produce has an enviable 99.5 percent household penetration. The traditional retail fresh produce channel rings up $60 billion in annual sales. It’s also heartening for those in the brick-and-mortar food retailing business that for the first time in many years, average grocery trip frequency increased last year.

That said, current shopper attitudes and marketplace factors reflect both opportunities and challenges in the produce sector to drive further sales and boost consumption frequency.

Increased competition, for example, is taking a bite out of traditional produce sales in supermarkets. Produce consumption figures are still high, and full-serve supermarkets have the edge over other retail channels (at 51 percent of the market), but growth in specialty-organic outlets and limited assortment stores are changing the retail landscape and, one might argue, putting the squeeze on grocers. To keep or grow their share of the consumer produce dollar, retailers can deliver on the consumer need for new ways to eat and enjoy produce.

According to the 2019 Power of Produce, although nearly all households in the United States buy fresh produce, only 41 percent of shoppers eat it daily. That, plus the fact 97 percent of respondents say they are trying to eat more produce, is a virtual open door to encourage people to find more eating occasions for fruits and vegetables.

Remember when not many people knew what jackfruit was? That’s one example of a fruit that became a darling in foodie circles and later featured in a broader way at both retail and foodservice. You could say the same thing about dragonfruit or kale.

Given the fact most people are in a certain comfort zone when it comes to produce, tending to stick to a small number and type of vegetable and fruit they always buy, there are many intriguing produce items that can attract the attention of shoppers who are in their comfort zone but are willing to step out of it when enticed. What will be the next jackfruit or kale?

Value-added items represent another pocket of growth. Twenty-eight percent of shoppers expect to buy more value-added produce items this year, up from 23 percent last year.

Produce snacks have been a hotbed of new product development and with good reason: Nearly 40 percent of shoppers are looking for snack-sized vegetables and fruit snack packs. In fact, the number of shoppers who want their produce department to offer more snack size vegetables more than doubled from 2017 to 2018.

Meanwhile, as plant-based proteins continue to garner buzz, there is a lot of potential in this burgeoning segment. The latest Power of Produce research shows protein-rich dinner produce (such as legumes, nuts, seeds, grains and tofu) is being eaten as an occasional meat alternative by 73 percent of shoppers.

From a retail perspective, another way to boost return on produce is to carry or promote organic items that consumers are increasingly willing to pay for. About a third of shoppers report they are looking for more organic, sustainably grown and non-GMO items. Moreover, preferences for attributes associated with growing practices are outpacing conventional produce sales. Tying into that trend, 4-in-10 shoppers have seen references to hydroponic- or greenhouse-grown produce, and general perceptions about the taste and quality of these items are positive.

Mixing up produce-based products also can encourage more frequent consumption of fruits and vegetables. For example, juices aren’t anything new, but there is a veritable bumper crop of produce-based beverages that are trendy among health-minded shoppers, especially younger, male and higher-income shoppers. About half of produce shoppers buy beverages such as cold-pressed juices, fruit smoothies, veggie shakes and produce-infused water, mostly as occasional purchases.

Finally, giving consumers who like produce (and the idea of eating produce) more choices such as value-added products and organic or hydroponically grown items is important moving into 2020 and beyond, but so is education.

This 2019 Power of Produce research shows many people still don’t know how to prepare vegetables and fruits or what to do with them, so providing more recipes and ideas, whether on a package, on social media or in store, will be increasingly crucial for turning strong penetration and appeal into more frequent consumption and sales.

Rick Stein is vice president, fresh foods, for the Food Marketing Institute (FMI). Follow him @Ricks_FreshFood. Visit,


The Three Immutable Laws Of Produce Marketing

by Jim Prevor, Editor-in-Chief, Produce Business

We launched Produce Business magazine in 1985, and during the past almost thirty-five years, virtually every plan to increase produce consumption has crossed my desk. They are all interesting. Many I have had great hopes for. Some, I still have great hope for.

But the bottom line is this: Not one of them has worked. Thus, I present The Three Immutable Laws of Produce Marketing:

1)   Never confuse success at selling one item or category with an increase of produce consumption in general.

We actually have excellent tools to use if the goal is to increase the sale of one item. From kiwifruit to kale, we have done it time and again. There are various techniques we can use … from substantive product changes — say the development of seedless grapes and easy-peeling citrus — to health tie-ins with kale and pomegranates. We tie in with cultural trends, such as jackfruit in an age of interest in meat replacement, to the use of high-end restaurants to broaden usage of specialty items such as dragonfruit.

Indeed, here is a little secret: Very little high-quality produce is dumped, so consumption — or at least consumer purchase — pretty much equals production. This means producers lower prices to move higher volumes, and this moves consumption. But unfortunately, bumper crops are not so large or so uniform that they lower overall produce prices so much and for so long that they convert consumers from cereal or pretzels or steak. Typically, the peaches are a bargain, so the nectarines sit until prices on those are lowered to a market-clearing level.

Experience shows that, for the most part, dramatic increases in use of an item are due to replacement. So, if people traditionally ate spinach salads or had a side dish of spinach with a protein, if kale booms, it takes over these slots, and chefs and consumers substitute kale for spinach. So, the industry celebrates the triumph of kale but never realizes that it is not leading to overall increases of produce consumption.

The bottom line is that people in the United States are already consuming more calories than they should, so in order for produce consumption to rise without increasing the obesity problem, consumers have to change their dietary habits whereby they not only eat more produce, but also eat less of other things. So, dinner goes from a 16-oz. steak to a vegetable stir-fry flavored with two ounces of meat. The evidence of this happening on a wide-scale is slim, and the trend on a global scale is toward a more western-style diet, heavy to proteins, etc.

2)   Be highly skeptical of consumer claims that they want to eat more produce.

When people say they are trying to do something that is exceptionally easy to do — such as eating more produce — but they do not do it — the question to ask is why. There are about 68 million people — more than the population of the United Kingdom — who eat in a McDonald’s each day somewhere in the world. The last time McDonald’s shared the information, salads accounted for between two and three percent of sales. So, if all these customers were authentically looking to increase produce consumption, it would be easy to do so by simply buying salads rather than cheeseburgers.

Sure, many consumers don’t know how to cook many produce items, but their actions indicate a limited desire to learn. In the days of the internet, a simple search, on even obscure produce items, brings up many possibilities. With more packaging in produce, more recipes are distributed in-store, and virtually all produce companies have websites, often with more recipes.

The problem is that the question we are asking consumers is not a morally neutral question. Produce is widely recognized as good for you, good for the environment, etc., so asking consumers about their aspirations on produce consumption is similar to asking if they are very stupid, undisciplined, don’t care about their children, don’t care about the environment, etc. In the research industry, it is known as “Social Desirability Bias,” and it means that sometimes answers to questions do not tell us what people are going to do. The answers tell us what the respondents think is the socially desirable answer.

3)   A focus on a plant-based future has little to do with produce.

The hottest item now is the Impossible Burger. Burger King just did a deal to make an Impossible Whopper. But whether this succeeds or fails, it has almost nothing to do with fresh fruits and vegetables.

Indeed, the whole focus on plant-based foods is typically a way of finding ways to replace meat with legumes, beans, soy, whole grains, etc., but produce is rarely substituted for meat. So, we already know how to grill a Portobello mushroom and make that a replacement for a beef burger. The entire focus on things such as the Impossible Burger is to avoid having people make that choice.

It is always great to learn more about consumers and what they have to say. But it is just as important for the industry to understand how to interpret what consumers are telling us. The path ahead is neither certain nor easy. But there are opportunities for those who interpret shrewdly.