GETTING A FEEL FOR TODAY’S FRESH PRODUCE CONSUMER: How Sentiment is Driving Behaviors and Purchases

By Rick Stein, Vice President, Fresh Foods, FMI

Originally printed in the April 2021 issue of Produce Business.

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 www.FMI.org/FreshFoods. As always, feel free to connect with me directly at [email protected].


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