COVID-19’s Effect On Produce In Online Grocery

Originally printed in the September 2020 issue of Produce Business.

By Yuni Sameshima, CEO and Co-Founder, Chicory

Online grocery was slow to grow compared to other ecommerce verticals. But when the coronavirus pandemic struck the country, grocery ecommerce skyrocketed, reflected in both recipe views and orders within Chicory’s shoppable recipe network. Particularly on Easter, recipe views nearly reached levels on par with Thanksgiving, typically the highest trafficked holiday in Chicory’s network, which exceeded levels on Christmas Eve, the second highest.

Why Did This Happen?

When examining exactly which products were driving the surge in online grocery, consumers in our network and grocery partners alike noticed that online grocery adoption was driven by canned and packaged foods that consumers were panic-buying. Subsequently, stocking up on fresh fruits and vegetables dramatically plummeted, unless they were long-lasting pantry vegetables like onions and potatoes.

Recipes using shelf-stable and non-perishable goods surged as consumers adjusted to life at home, and home-made bread became one of the biggest trends of quarantine.

Produce in Online Grocery Now

Because of online grocery’s rapid adoption and quick-changing consumer behavior, many thought that it was a temporary trend. But one of the biggest indicators showing that it’s permanent is that, now, a few months into stay-at-home orders, more consumers are buying fresh produce via online channels than ever before. Previously preferring to pick their avocados and chicken at the grocery store, more consumers, having tried online grocery services at the height of the pandemic, are now comfortable trusting personal shoppers, pickers and employees to select produce for them. Overall, online grocery orders for fresh produce grew by 14.96% from January 2020 to July 2020.

One of the biggest indicators showing that it’s permanent is that, now, a few months into stay-at-home orders, more consumers are buying fresh produce via online channels than ever before.

Zucchini Emerges as the Top Produce Item of the Summer

One surprising trend this summer is zucchini, as views for recipes containing zucchini, skyrocketed by a whopping 93.46% from January to July 2020. A favorite for low-carb recipes that were all the rage for these past few years, the trend died down as consumers turned to indulgent and hearty recipes during the height of the coronavirus outbreak. The mid-summer season and simultaneous reopenings across the country seem to have brought this trend back in full force.

Bottom Line

Chicory’s shoppable recipe network indicates that consumers may be returning to more normal shopping patterns, now buying fresh produce in the form of summer fruits and low-carb zucchini squash — as opposed to canned or frozen. Consumers who flocked to grocery ecommerce services at the height of the pandemic are now incorporating delivery and pickup services into their regular grocery shopper routines.


Chicory is an NYC-based tech firm and the leading shopper marketing platform for CPG and grocery brands. Its signature “Get Ingredients” button can be found on over 1,500 recipe websites, including Taste of Home, Delish, Betty Crocker and thousands of influencer food blogs. Leveraging its extensive recipe network, Chicory partners with leading CPG brands like General Mills and grocery retailers like Wakefern to serve hyper-relevant ads to consumers in the moments when they’re planning their grocery purchases. As the pioneer of shoppable recipes, Chicory creates the digital tools to take grocery shoppers from inspiration to checkout in a few clicks.


Place Your Bets On Post-Pandemic Shopping

Jim Prevor - Editor in Chief

Jim Prevor, Editor-in-chief, Produce Business

There is no question that most of the produce industry would like to believe the experience of this pandemic – where home cooking has become more common and retail sales have risen – will become a kind of “new normal” when the COVID-19 situation resolves either because of a vaccine or the development of a naturally induced “herd immunity.” Count this author among the long-term skeptics.

It is certainly possible that we may have a recession or a depression if COVID-19 bounces back stronger than ever in the fall or winter. Such an event would certainly encourage at-home eating and thus higher retail sales. If, however, we get a little lucky and the coronavirus fades, there is little reason to believe that anything we see happening with grocery sales today will continue.

For as long as we have records – which is more than 100 years – there has been a continuous movement for more and more consumer dollars to be spent in the foodservice channel. There are many reasons for this: Greater affluence allows for people to eat out more; new foodservice concepts, such as fast food, made eating out less expensive; more institutional living – more college students, more prisoners in jails, more elderly in nursing or retirement homes – have all made foodservice growth unavoidable. Dozens of other changes, such as the growth of females in the work-force and easier travel, made it common for families to be apart during meal times at home.

If we rebound to a healthy and prosperous society, there is not much reason to think any of this will change.

Even if it did change… if say, there is less business travel than before because people have found the value of Skype and Microsoft Teams and Zoom… there is no particular reason to think that will translate into more cooking at home. After all, perhaps Delivery Dudes and Uber Eats also will have found new fans during the pandemic.

The whole issue of ordering groceries online is difficult to assess right now. We just don’t have very good information on whether consumers use Instacart, Peapod and store-specific delivery services because they love the convenience or because they think it prudent to stay out of stores. There are other considerations as well. If the children are staying at home doing school on line, many parents can’t really leave the house. If people are going to work, stopping on the way home is a minor inconvenience, but if they are working at home, it is now a round trip.

Our bet: We will see foodservice boom, in-person shopping boom, and many of the changes thought to be important will turn out to be memories.

There is also very little data now on the degree to which consumers are pleased with the pickings that are done for them in selecting produce by grocery store delivery services. In a pandemic, one may accept things. But, still, the picker may have selected bananas too green, cantaloupe not yet ripe enough, etc.

The bigger issue, though, is that we don’t fully understand how shopping trips get put together. Maybe Junior asks if Mom would bake a special cake for the school bake sale, so Mom stops at the store to get the needed ingredients, but she buys the weekly groceries while there. Note, this is not saying that Mom was unsatisfied with the delivery service; just that opportunity and convenience were combined in this instance, and she bought what she wanted.

We also don’t know the degree to which price comparison may drive physical shopping. Most people probably don’t want multiple deliveries, especially in a post-pandemic time when one may be at work or out shopping or socializing, so multiple scheduled deliveries are inherently inconvenient. Indeed, even one scheduled delivery may be inconvenient. It is very possible that consumers want to go to Store A because they have a special that week, or maybe the bakery there is good, or they have a prime beef program, but that doesn’t mean this consumer wants to buy everything there.

Indeed, this fact – that one generally has to be home to accept deliveries and people want the freedom to stay at their child’s soccer game even if it runs late, to accept a last-minute invitation to a neighbor’s barbeque or stay at the office to capture a last-minute opportunity – all means that the convenience of delivery may not be convenient at all.

We understand that zucchini may have seen heavy recipe searches on the Chicory database, but we know it is unlikely that zucchini sales suddenly doubled. That zucchini would have had to be planted and grown long before this doubling of demand would have been noticed. Indeed, if zucchini sales actually double, the price of zucchini would zoom and that would suppress demand.

Changes in demand during this pandemic may last one month, six months or a year. What will tell the tale is what happens when the situation changes and we have a vaccine or reach herd immunity or otherwise live without the constraints we all live under now.

Our bet: People tired of behavior imposed on them in a pandemic will revolt and want to do the opposite. We will see foodservice boom, in-person shopping boom, and many of the changes thought to be important will turn out to be memories.

There will be negative memories of being held prisoner for fear of the virus, and there will be positive memories of family meals and togetherness. But they will all be memories as the world moves forward by going as has been said, “Back to the future.”