Originally printed in the November 2021 issue of Produce Business.
When it comes to produce, the shopping decision process is not clear. Unlike packaged food, the label is not always prominent or recognizable. The question is, how do people select which fruits and vegetables to put in their shopping carts? When it comes to fresh produce, are there certain brands that are top-of-mind? And finally, what does the typical grocery shopper think about price, freshness, and brand loyalty? Knowing this information can help produce brands better position themselves in the shopping aisles.
In September 2021, Provoke Insights, a market research and brand consultancy firm, set out to answer these questions and more. Provoke Insights conducted a 15-minute survey among 1,500 U.S. consumers. Sampling was matched to reflect the U.S. population to ensure a high degree of representation of the U.S. population (household income, age, gender, geography, and children in the household). Statistical differences between subgroups were tested at a 95% confidence level. Below are highlights of the findings:
The Frequent Grocery Shopper
The vast majority of Americans (99%) consider themselves the primary or shared household grocery shopper. Consumers are purchasing fresh fruits and veggies more than ever. The majority (90%) stop by the produce section at least once per week.
More so, almost half (44%) buy freshly picked goods at least once every few days. These high-frequency shoppers are, unsurprisingly, parents who are employed. These frequent purchasers more likely have children in the household (53%), are employed (65%), and are comprised of the Millennial generation (50%).
Where one lives is critical of how often someone shops for these fruits and veggies. Those who live in urban areas are more likely to purchase fresh produce more frequently. Think: a working mom or dad stopping at the grocery store on their way home from work to pick out vegetables for a home-cooked meal, or fruit for a kid-friendly school lunch. Time is of the essence for these working parents, so they most likely are in a rush when shopping. Given the time crunch of this cohort’s shopping trip, produce brands need to stand out amongst the competition.
Factors in the Produce Decision Journey
When it comes to gaining brand familiarity and loyalty amongst shoppers, brand name is not the largest influencer when it comes to produce selection. Almost half of grocery purchasers (44%) cannot conjure up a brand name when unprompted.
Instead, household shoppers most often look for freshness. One of the most important factors in purchasing starts with the quality of the product; almost two-thirds (64%) of shoppers look specifically for signs of freshness. They may ask themselves, “How crisp is this apple?” or, “How long will this lettuce last in my fridge?” Women more often seek freshness (68%) compared to men (61%). By highlighting the freshness, quality, or of the product in advertising, shoppers can walk into the store with brands in mind that will fit this need.
Just under one-third of shoppers are tried-and-true to fresh produce brands. Unprompted, Dole overwhelmingly leads in brand awareness (29%), followed by Chiquita (6%), Del Monte (4%), Green Giant (2%), and Kroger (1%).
These shoppers may look to these brands most, as they have a strong affinity regardless of price or freshness. Geography is a contributing factor to loyalty, with 35% of city-dwellers ranking brand name as a top decision factor compared to suburban (28%) or rural residents (27%). Those who seek specific brands of produce also tend to be more optimistic (31%). In-store branding should be targeted in urban areas, as these consumers tend to be more loyal.
Price comes in last for most grocery shoppers, with only 15% saying they look for the cheapest price every time. Unsurprisingly, those who strongly consider price are significantly likely to be from Generation Z (22%) or have a yearly household income under $50,000 (22%). Think: college students looking to whip up a meal on a budget. A quarter of those with a household income under $50,000 also look to store brands (private label). These groups are looking to get their daily servings of fruits and vegetables on a budget.
There is little overall awareness of fresh fruit and vegetable brands. To better connect with frequent shoppers, brands should take steps to stand out, raise brand awareness, and focus on freshness.
Provoke Insights is a full-service global market research and brand strategy firm. As a builder of brands, the firm solely focuses on research for branding, advertising, and content marketing initiatives. Provoke Insights empowers brands with the insights they need to navigate the cluttered marketing space and improve ROI.
Fresh Produce Has Particular Marketing Challenges
By Jim Prevor
The issue of fresh produce branding is an important one. It is, however, different from the typical analysis of branding in most of the supermarket. What is the key difference? Simple… retailers generally only carry one brand at a time of each fresh produce item.
In other words, when a consumer is interested in chicken soup, that consumer can buy Campbell’s or Progresso or a dozen other brands. Even within each brand, there are numerous options: Classic, Chunky, Homestyle, Low Sodium, on and on.
In contrast, a banana, well, it is pretty much a banana. Cavendish variety. So even if a marketer does a great job of promoting its brand and manages to develop consumer preference, you are basically asking a consumer to go into a supermarket, try and accomplish his or her shopping, then leave and go to a second place solely to buy the brand that consumer prefers.
Since stores sell multiple brands, and soup recipes actually do vary, consumers of soup don’t have to shop elsewhere.
It is not obvious that unaided recall tells us the whole story when it comes to fresh produce. One thing to note is that many prominent fresh produce brands are also on canned or frozen product. So, for example, brands such as Dole and Del Monte always had a marketing advantage as they always had something with that brand name in every store.
It is also notable that this research did not segregate brand recognition on fresh produce. The question asked: “Q. When you think of produce, what brand is top of mind?” Note, though, that this could be canned or frozen, and note also that even the word produce is probably less clear to consumers than asking about fresh fruit and vegetables.
Though sometimes things are true, we have to be careful about jumping to a meaning. Certainly city dwellers shop more frequently. That doesn’t mean they buy more produce. City dwellers typically have smaller living areas and don’t have the capacity to store much in the way of refrigerated goods. When this writer was living in a suburban house growing up with his parents, we had a separate large refrigerator and freezer in the kitchen, another in the garage and still another in the basement. When I moved out of the house into an apartment in Manhattan, I had one combo refrigerator/freezer. Even for non-refrigerated goods, the difference was dramatic. My father would buy a 50 lb. bag of onions that we kept in the garage! I love onions, but in my Manhattan apartment, maybe I bought two onions in one visit!
Marketing produce has specific challenges. Sure, consumers may value “freshness,” but almost all reputable producers ship produce in excellent condition. Indeed, almost all retail chains will reject the produce if it arrives in poor condition. Even reputable retailers typically receive produce in high quality distribution centers and ship it out quickly.
The place where produce typically deteriorates is at store level and in the consumer’s home! So, marketing or advertising one’s product as particularly fresh is very problematic. It was fresh when shipped, but whether it is fresh or not in store or in a consumer household is really out of the control of most marketers.
A third of the top brands recalled by consumers in this study — there are nine — aren’t produce brands at all: Kroger, Whole Foods and Great Value are all retail brands. This study says unaided recall is really low on produce brands. Perhaps. But who actually cares about whether consumers can remember brands in the abstract? Isn’t the relevant question whether when consumers are in a store, or buying online, and they see Ocean Spray, that this makes them comfortable buying the cranberries?
The study claims big differences between urban and suburban consumers, with urban consumers placing more weight on brands. Maybe, though, there are reasonable explanations. Could urban consumers skew younger — and being newer to shopping, look for signposts of the things their mother bought back when they were growing up?
Could urban shoppers frequent ethnic markets — say the famous Korean greengrocers in New York City – and these stores don’t have the prominent store reputations that Walmart, Costco, Publix, HEB, Kroger, Safeway, Albertsons and many others do? In other words, consumers who trust their local Stop & Shop, King Kullen or Gelson’s assume the produce buyers bought the best available this week.
Those stopping at an unbranded city fruit store might not have the same faith. It is also possible that urban fruit stores, buying off a local terminal market, might change brands fairly frequently, as they have the opportunity to actually check for the best quality and the best price. In contrast, a large chain is likely to consistently buy and carry the same brands, in part because it is difficult to just switch vendors when one needs so many trailers every week.
It is not surprising that consumers explain they don’t rank price high in purchasing produce. It is a variable quality product. Even poor people don’t want moldy fruit or items with blemishes or mealy apples. But the quality of produce sold in major large retailers is similar.
Whereas an independent store in New York can walk the Hunts Point Market searching for the finest quality or the best deal, chains with thousands of stores pretty much have to just buy a grade. Once every store in a market is selling Washington Extra Fancy Red Delicious apples, price becomes an important factor.