GETTING A FEEL FOR TODAY’S FRESH PRODUCE CONSUMER: How Sentiment is Driving Behaviors and Purchases — Retail Success May Be Hard To Sustain


How Sentiment is Driving Behaviors and Purchases

By Rick Stein, Vice President, Fresh Foods, FMI

April 2021 – We talk a lot about consumer sentiment in this industry, but events of the past year have evoked particularly powerful sentiments among shoppers. Those feelings, running the gamut from concern to nostalgia, lifted the produce category to a record year in 2020, with $69.6 billion in retail sales and opened the door to further innovation and opportunity.

Not surprisingly in the midst of a global pandemic, the desire to protect health and well-being has sent shoppers to the produce section in search of fruits and vegetables rich in nutrients and immune-supportive properties. It is one of the few retail departments with a halo over it, with consumers feeling good about purchasing products that are good for them.

According to the recently released 2021 Power of Produce report, published by FMI—The Food Industry Association, and conducted by 210 Analytics, 32% of shoppers say they put a lot of effort into making nutritious choices, and 22% say that they are putting in a lot more effort during the ongoing health crisis.

First and foremost, consumers associate fruits and vegetables with nutrients such as vitamins and antioxidants, with 51% of shoppers citing that benefit. Shoppers say they seek out fresh produce for digestive health (49%), heart health (48%), immune support (47%), maintaining or getting to a healthy weight (45%), providing energy (43%), managing health conditions such as diabetes (33%) and building physical strength (30%).

Growers, producers and food retailers can respond to shoppers’ sentiment about protecting their health and well-being on many levels. Whether providing a greater assortment of fresh produce or highlighting specific nutrients, those who provide fruits and vegetables can continue to make the department a destination and resource for shoppers concerned about overall health and well-being.

Another sentiment impacting the produce department is the way consumers feel about cooking and preparing meals at home, often as a family or unit. Even with cooking fatigue that sets in from time to time, the overall joy of eating more meals at home with your family was refreshing and brought people back to a happy time in a world of chaos. The beauty of cooking and eating at home is the opportunity to spend more time with family, and it is a habit I plan to continue as I find family meals can be both fun and soothing.

Fresh fruits and vegetables were part of many of those at-home meals. The 2021 Power of Produce report shows that 32% of households bought more fresh produce in the past year, with additional occasions driving increased consumption.

Shoppers buying more produce for meal occasions at home are also driven by a sense of exploration. A third of consumers in the 2021 Power of Produce research say they have tried to use or cook with a different type of fruit or vegetable, and an equal 33% report that they have used new spices, sauces or flavors when preparing fresh produce. Although they enjoy trying new products and using different cooking methods, that doesn’t mean people want to spend endless time in the kitchen: volume growth of value-added vegetables rose 10.5% ,and volume growth of value-added fruits rose 1.2% in 2020.

Sentiment is also tied to the manner in which consumers browse and buy fresh produce. A plum or avocado that look just right may not appeal to everyone. It’s the personal visual and tactile appeal that sets fresh produce apart from other types of products sold in-store and via ecommerce. The 2021 Power of Produce report reveals that 54% of shoppers have purchased at least some fresh fruits and vegetables online in 2020, compared to 29% in 2019. Amid this remarkable shift, guaranteeing satisfaction can’t be overstated, since 26% of shoppers say that produce purchased in online orders is not as good as what they would pick in store. E-commerce poses other challenges for fresh produce, too, like the fact that more than half of shoppers (51%) don’t look for new fruit and vegetable items online.

Those in our industry can use an array of merchandising tools, both in-store and online, to reach shoppers looking for fresh ideas for serving meals at home and products that meet their standards for quality. For instance, you can spotlight value-added items that take prep time away from consumers; many prepackaged fruit and vegetable items like salad kits also photograph well on e-commerce sites and are less subjective to personal appeal. For other fresh fruits and vegetables, emphasizing locally grown items and interesting varieties that might be new to the store can entice shoppers and unlock sales.

The current wave of often-intense sentiments may crest somewhat as the global health situation eases. But the lessons of this past year won’t be unlearned, as people continue to eat for health and wellness, seek out new ideas and shop differently. As always, consumer sentiment drives our collective actions.

Stay on track with the latest trends with the full 2021 Power of Produce report and the upcoming FreshForward thought-leadership event set for August 17-19 in Minneapolis. Learn more at As always, feel free to connect with me directly at            pb

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

Retail Success May Be Hard To Sustain

Though the produce category had a record year at retail in 2020, foodservice was, of course, way down as so many restaurants were closed as were institutions such as schools and their lunch and meal programs. The statistics are not all in yet, but there is little reason to think that produce consumption hit a high during  the pandemic, especially not fresh produce consumption.

There is some evidence that certain items, particularly associated with health that were never previously heavily consumed at restaurants — such as oranges and clementines and, in general, fresh citrus — did see a jump in sales and consumption. However, the famous big four of foodservice — potatoes, lettuce, onions and tomatoes — will probably show a decline in overall consumption when all the numbers are in.

In general, while there were a few weeks where consumers were desperately buying everything — with people not wanting to go to stores… people buying more online where they were depending on surrogate shoppers of mostly little produce knowledge working for delivery companies… people uncertain when they would resume normal life, etc. — it all made perishable items, with uncertain shelf-life and sometimes need for refrigerator space, a risky and limited buy.

The pandemic may have moved eating occasions around and may have switched product favorites and, at different moments, boosted family meals and encouraged simpler meals than what one would get at a restaurant. But the Produce for Better Health Foundation’s recent “State of the Plate” Report tells the overarching facts with which the produce industry must wrestle:

Fruit and vegetable eating occasions continue to decline. Over the past 16 years, the frequency in which Americans consume produce has decreased by nearly 10%. This amounts to a loss of at least one fruit/vegetable eating occasion per week. Between 2015-2020 alone, consumption declined by 3%, indicating that the trend is worsening every year. Within the fruit, vegetable, and juice categories, the most significant contributors have been decreased vegetable consumption frequency (down 16% since 2004 and 4% in the past five years) and a reduction in juice (down 15% since 2004 and 8% in the past five years). Fruit eating occasions (excluding juice) grew 10% between 2004-2020 and 3% between 2015-2020. Yet, even this growth in whole fruit intake over time has not been enough to overcome the net decline.

It is nice that consumers associate fruits and vegetables with nutrients and anti-oxidents, but it is not clear to what extent such association impacts consumption. Think about this: The Annals of Internal Medicine published a study and determined that during the period of April 1 to June 30, 2020 alcohol purchases at retail and delivery jumped 34.4%:

Retail alcohol and tobacco sales increased 34% and 13%, respectively, early during the COVID-19 pandemic compared with the same period in the year prior. The greater increase in alcohol sales unlikely reflects bar and restaurant closures alone because alcohol sales increased more (+34.4%) than nonalcoholic beverage sales (+17.7%) or total sales by a non–alcohol purchaser (+2.6%). Previous estimates (4) were that 22% growth of off-premise alcohol sales would be needed to fully offset on-premise losses from closures — in our analysis, alcohol sales increased 34%.

There is certainly anecdotal evidence that some people used the pandemic lockdowns to eat healthier, exercise more, etc., but there is no evidence that, as a whole, lockdowns produced a healthier populace. In the Journal of Addiction Medicine, they reported that half of cannabis users increased their marijuana use during the pandemic, pushing frequency of use or consumption up to four days a week.

The point, of course, is that many people do not act based on what is most likely to improve their health. They drink or use drugs to escape from their problems, not deal with them.

The Produce for Better Health Foundation research further points out there is significant evidence that higher produce-consuming individuals are more motivated and have a better ability to plan.

There is hope for the industry: The explosion in fresh-cut items, combined with the development of superior varieties and new convenience items, all make it possible for the produce industry to reach out and appeal to consumers who previously looked askance. 

After the last global pandemic took place shortly after World War I, the country moved into the Roaring 20’s. The yearning of so many to burst out of quarantine provides a great likelihood that foodservice will rebound strongly. This new age will likely see foodservice boom and cause consumers to resume the century-long pattern of spending higher and higher percentages of their money on food consumed outside of home.

Retailers right now are drunk on success. But it will be hard to sustain. Yes, people may look wistfully back on times they could engage with their families and all eat dinner together. Young adults will, however, go off to college again and high school students will have sports, plays and other extracurriculars after school. Business that was done on Zoom because that was the only way will change as some executives find they need to go out and compete in person.

Lessons learned will not be forgotten, but, perhaps the lesson most likely learned is that human beings enjoy human contact and, as soon as they think it safe, well, whatever the Charleston of the 1920s was to its time, we can expect a new version for the 2020s, and people will want to dance.            pb