How Evolutions In Meal Planning Are Changing The Produce Department

Kellie Beckel Senior Marketing Manager, Nielsen Perishables Group

Consumption patterns have changed from planning a week’s worth of home-cooked meals to planning only a few hours or minutes in advance. Shoppers are increasingly visiting the grocery store just to get something for dinner that night. The rise of “almost homemade” meals, snacking, prepared meals, and shifts in foodservice offerings have implications across the entire store, and the produce department is no exception.

Almost Homemade

Although many consumers enjoy cooking at home, they’re often too time-strapped to prepare an entire meal. Enter “almost homemade,” the concept behind meal solutions that are fast and easy, but still give the consumer a sense of having played a part in meal preparation (however minimal).

The packaged salad category offers evidence of this growing trend in the produce department. During the 52 weeks ending Aug. 31, 2013, the “completes/kits” sub-category accounted for 16 percent of packaged salad sales, which was an increase of 2 percentage points from the previous year. The category had a near 20 percent increase in the number of unique items; dollar and volume sales were up 23 percent, respectively.

Many frozen meal starters are ideal for pairing with a side of fresh vegetables. Merchandising or cross-promoting these items together can drive incremental sales from the time-strapped shopper seeking a convenient almost homemade meal.

Prepared Meals

While some consumers still like to have a hand in preparing their meals, others are increasingly seeking prepared grab-and-go solutions from grocery stores. While this trend primarily benefits the deli department, certain produce items within deli prepared foods are playing a growing role in this upward movement.

During the past year, deli-prepared foods increased dollar and volume sales 7.7 percent and 5.9 percent respectively. Within deli-prepared entrees, vegetable entrees increased dollar and volume sales 8.9 percent and 10 percent, respectively. The deli salad bar contributed nearly 20 percent to deli salad sales, and an increased dollar and volume sales 6.8 percent and 3.8 percent respectively.

Produce products also drove dollar and volume growth in the deli-prepared sides category. Potato and corn sides drove category sales with dollar increases of more than 10 percent, while broccoli and squash sides each increased dollar and volume sales by more than 20 percent.

While this growth is good news for the deli, it’s important for retailers to understand the space and its buyer in order to avoid cannibalizing from other areas of the store. Retailers and suppliers can help build on prepared foods sales and bolster produce sales by pairing prepared items with fresh produce complement to create almost-homemade solutions.


Snacking as a meal supplement, even as a meal replacement, continues to gain traction particularly with the increasingly influential Millennial demographic. Several produce department staples are natural fits for snackers. Products like apples, grapes, berries, and bananas satisfy consumer demands for both healthy and grab-and-go options. For example, the smaller Clementine orange variety outpaced overall orange growth, increasing dollar sales 37.6 percent and volume sales 42 percent, while oranges decreased dollar sales 1.2 percent and posted a slight volume increase of 2.6 percent.

However, categories that are tailor-made to meet snacking needs are posting rapid growth. In the produce department, the snacking vegetable sub-category (including items such as snacking carrots with dip, celery, vegetable mixes, vegetables and hummus) increased dollar and volume sales 15.8 percent and 17.2 percent, respectively, during the 52 weeks ending Aug. 31, 2013. The number of unique snacking vegetable items selling on store shelves increased 11.7 percent from the prior year, proving suppliers are innovating to meet growing demand. Fresh-cut fruit posted similar growth during this time period, up 15.8 percent and 16 percent in dollars and volume as well as 17.1 percent in unique items selling.

Another growing snacking category is produce dips. During the latest 52 weeks, produce dips increased dollar sales 6.5 percent and volume sales by 8 percent. Additionally, the number of unique produce dip items selling on store shelves increased 6.6 percent. Vegetable dips had the highest contribution to produce dip sales, increasing dollar and volume sales 7.6 percent and 10 percent respectively. Vegetable dip sales outpaced fruit dip sales, which remained steady compared to the previous year. Fresh guacamole and onion dip increased dollar and volume sales by more than 15 percent, while fresh salsa increased dollar and volume sales 11 percent respectively.  Vegetable dips also drove the increases in unique items selling, increasing 9.2 percent compared to the prior year.

For retailers and suppliers seeking to capitalize on the snacking trend, merchandising that touts the healthy, convenient grab-and-go aspects of produce can help frame the shopper’s mindset. Merchandising items like celery and apples with dips and spreads could also spur incremental sales.