New Year’s Food For Thought

The Produce Marketing Association (PMA) regularly commissions consumer studies to help identify factors driving fresh produce demand.

Produce has purchase power. In March, 72 percent of consumers responding told us they shop for fruits and vegetables where they do most of their grocery shopping, 47 percent will change stores for better fruits and vegetables, and nearly 20 percent travel to a different store to get better freshness, quality or prices.

On several occasions, consumers told us produce has become increasingly important, whether eating at home or out. In July, 14 percent of households reported at least one “flexitarian,” who eats a mostly vegetarian diet, 33 percent of those households reported the level of flexitarian eating has increased in the past few years, and 29 percent of households with a vegetarian reported this preference has increased.

Forty-three percent of respondents in May told us produce offerings (excluding French fries) were “very much” a factor in their restaurant choice, and 45 percent said so about their entrée choice. Almost 30 percent told us they looked for and/or purchased a produce item after first trying it in a restaurant. As I’ve said before, produce marketers and retailers need to pay close attention to what is happening at American restaurants.

In those restaurants, produce is also taking on a greater share of the plate and is sometimes moving increasingly to the center of the plate. In May, consumers told us that when dining out, they are purchasing more entrée salads (44 percent), side salads (56 percent), fresh-cut fruit salads (42 percent) and vegetarian entrées (26 percent).

Meet the royal food court: taste, convenience, nutrition, quality, selection, and price. The taste was very important to 81 percent of respondents in our May survey; nutrition was so ranked by 62 percent. Consumers responding to our September survey regarding take-home meals cited as most important: taste, quality, consistency, convenience, service, price, and selection, in that order.

Parents ranked health and nutrition, quality, variety, and convenience as top motivators in purchasing more fruits and vegetables for their children in a January survey. Twenty-four percent of respondents in our March survey told us they would buy more produce if retail pricing was better, 15 percent if fresher and better quality, and 8 percent if better variety and selection.

In May, 86 percent of consumers reported they had purchased fresh-cut produce in the past year, 41 percent reported their purchases had increased, and 34 percent planned to increase purchases in the year ahead. Since the body blow to the category from the September outbreak of E. coli traced to spinach, sales have taken a hit, with products containing spinach feeling the most pain. I wrote about this last month and we’ll be tracking consumer attitudes and reporting on those results in the months ahead.

How consumers feel about produce safety is impacted easily. We commissioned consumer surveys on food safety in February and May, before and after an NBC Dateline segment on fresh-cut food safety. While the broadcast did not increase the share of consumers expressing concerns about food safety, it appeared to elevate levels among those already concerned. For those who already harbor concerns, this type of news ratchets up the level. Most consumers rated the safety of bagged salad highly pre- and post-segment.

The spinach outbreak had extensive media coverage and generated great concern. That’s been followed more recently by the E. coli outbreak at Taco Bell, which was initially attributed (wrongly) to green onions by the company and then (without final definitive evidence) to lettuce by CDC and FDA, as well as some state health departments.

We’re continuing to track consumer confidence and hope to see an upswing with the positive steps being taken by the industry to prevent additional outbreaks and regain consumer and regulatory authority confidence. I expect to see considerable media coverage as government hearings proliferate. Produce will be front-and-center stage.

So, what about some goals and resolutions for the year ahead? These research findings offer several possibilities.

No other food group offers the flavor, eye and nutritional appeal of produce, and at bargain per-serving prices. Increased sales profits will go to those suppliers, retailers and foodservice operators who capitalize on the importance consumers place on produce. We have the opportunity to grow consumption of important existing customers. Our surveys indicate even vegetarians’ and flexitarians’ produce repertoire is limited, a reality that likely applies to most produce consumers, too.

We have an opportunity to capitalize on our consumers’ demands for flexibility of form, function, and venue, whether they seek the convenience of fresh-cut produce and take-home meals over whole produce, enjoy year-round variety or prefer to buy seasonally and locally. Consumers tell us we can also increase sales by offering a broader selection of tastier, higher-quality produce.

We must redouble our efforts to improve the information flow about our products themselves (aimed at consumers) and the standardized, descriptive data we can share electronically (within the supply chain). It’s time to tell our story more effectively to the public while also improving the efficiency of the data we could be transmitting so we improve quality, analyze better and enhance traceability. The last of these is no small measure in this era of food-safety concerns.

Consumers have given us much food for thought this year. As we continue to listen and learn from them in the year ahead, PMA looks forward to sharing our insights.