By Kelli Beckel, Senior Marketing Manager, Nielsen Perishables Group
In an industry that used to be dictated — and to some extent still is — by crop availability and commodity price, it can be easy to lose sight of the end consumer. That consumer, however, is driving the produce department’s performance more than ever. The evolution of consumer priorities — an enduring focus on health, increasingly sophisticated palates and lifestyles that are seemingly always overbooked — has benefited fresh produce arguably more than any other area of the store.
When analyzing sales patterns across produce categories, it becomes apparent that successful products are those that fulfill one or more of four key consumer priority areas: health, convenience, premium and global.
Americans’ push to live more healthful lifestyles is clearly not a fad, but a cultural shift. As fresh produce is a centerpiece of a nutritious diet, the department has benefited. Produce department volume sales at retail increased 3 percent in 2012. The New Year is a key time for renewed focus on healthy eating, which boosts categories such as carrots and packaged salads. Carrot’s two highest selling weeks of the year occurred in January, posting sales nearly 20 percent higher than the annual average weekly per-store sales. Packaged salads also benefit from New Year’s resolutions. In 2012, the category had its third-highest sales week of the year in early January, selling, on average, $3,318 per store the week ending January 14, 2012, or 9 percent higher than packaged salads’ average weekly per-store sales for the year.
Value-added fruits and vegetables continue to succeed as solutions that empower buyers to incorporate fresh produce into their diets with minimal preparation. Value-added vegetables have a wide variety of uses with snacking leading the sub-category growth. Snacking vegetables account for the smallest share of value-added vegetable sales, but their volume sales grew 20 percent in 2012. Value-added vegetable side dishes also posted notable volume growth of 15 percent, and this growth was fueled by innovation. Side dishes experienced the greatest increase in average impressions or the number of unique items on store shelves in a given week.
Innovation also drove trends for value-added fruit. In the fresh-cut fruit sub-category, volume sales grew 17 percent in 2012 with an increase in impressions of 13 percent.
Across fresh foods, consumers are showing that price is not the top consideration in purchase decisions. Many premium products are growing despite their higher price points, and in many cases, minimal promotional support. In the produce department, this is playing out in categories such as cherries and specialty mushrooms.
Cherry retail prices were down nearly 10 percent due to a large Washington crop in 2012, but they remain one of the higher priced categories in produce at $2.92 per pound. The category’s volume sales increased 10 percent, but Rainiers — the highest priced variety at an average of $4.28 per pound — outpaced the category’s growth with a volume increase of 11 percent. Even with a price 47 percent higher than the Bing variety, consumers are increasingly snatching up Rainiers because of their sweeter flavor profile.
Specialty mushrooms are gaining publicity in the food world, and shoppers are buying them more for at-home cooking. Inclusive of varieties such as Shiitake and Oyster mushrooms, specialty mushrooms increased volume sales 5 percent in 2012, even with a price point that was 63 percent higher than the mushroom category average.
Produce items such as mangos and avocados have broken into mainstream America, but many lesser-known products with ethnic roots are also gaining traction. Cilantro volume sales increased 8 percent last year, while edamame and jicama both posted growth of 7 percent. Consumers are also gravitating toward bold flavors; 16 of 22 pepper varieties increased volume in 2012, with hot Habanero peppers posting the greatest increase of 104 percent.
Three-quarters of the 24 specialty fruit sub-categories increased volume sales in 2012, 12 of which were by double digits. Interestingly, among the top four specialty fruits, the more well-known varieties of mango and papaya declined, while kiwis and pomegranates increased by 17 percent and 18 percent, respectively.
Also part of the equation for the increase of global products are variety and distribution. Distribution (generally global sourcing) has put more of the traditional products already popular with U.S. consumers in stores longer. Berries are a perfect example, as growers have built a supply chain that extends throughout North America to Mexico and Central America and down to Chile and Argentina to create a nearly uninterrupted supply of blueberries. Blackberries and strawberries have also benefited, though the sourcing tends to be from various regions of Mexico.
Growth results from consumers buying these products more because they are on the retail shelf longer throughout the year. Also, the unique item offerings have grown year over year across the produce department mainly due to new products coming out of the breeding programs at private companies and universities.