Originally printed in the September 2019 issue of Produce Business.
By Sharon Olson
Read Jim Prevor’s Commentary below
As grocery orders go mobile, quick-service restaurants tout salads, and the internet makes it possible to access anything on demand, there’s no doubt that fresh and fast are merging on the menu. Culinary Visions sought out to explore this topic in a new study of 1,500 consumers who were asked to share their perspectives on fresh, convenient food they can eat on the go.
Grab-and-go items featuring fruits and vegetables are the natural fit for consumers’ cravings in today’s time-starved world. Seventy-six percent of consumers said they prefer to snack on fresh produce, and 74% said they enjoy eating single-serving, handheld food.
Younger Consumers Leading The Way
Produce’s biggest fans were younger consumers, who consistently expressed the most interest in quick, ready-to-eat concepts. Seventy-six percent of consumers ages 18-34 said they would be likely to purchase prepared items from the produce department, compared with 69% of consumers ages 35-54 and 56% of consumers ages 55 and older.
Pesticide-free also divided generations, drumming up far more enthusiasm from younger consumers than other age groups. Sixty-nine percent of those 18-34 said they would be likely to purchase organic items, a number that dropped to 55% for consumers 35-54 and just 44% for consumers 55 and older.
Seasonal ingredients, on the other hand, stood out as a unifying force. Eighty percent of consumers 18-34 said they would be likely to purchase items that were seasonal specials. In comparison, 78% percent of consumers 35-54 and 76% of consumers 55 and older said they would be likely to purchase items that were seasonal specials.
Some 66% of consumers agree that it is difficult to find fresh snacks on the go, suggesting there are plenty of opportunities for fruit, vegetable and salad grab-and-go offerings to grow.
Loving Local While Relying on Brands
Consumers of all ages take pride in produce they can trace back to their own communities. According to the study, 84% of consumers agreed locally sourced food is the freshest food, and 81% said they would like to eat more meals that contain locally sourced ingredients. Placards and labels that identify where produce was grown will make consumers feel good about supporting their neighbors as well as answer their questions about how their food got from the field to their plates.
At the same time, big brands offer consumers their own benefits. The study found that even though consumers are loving local, brand loyalty plays a great role in fresh perceptions. Eighty-six percent of consumers said there are certain brands they trust to be fresh, and 90% of consumers said their previous experience in a store is important in determining food’s freshness.
Making Produce A Priority
Consumers expressed their desire to get more natural fuel into their diets, and produce is helping them fulfill it. Eighty-eight percent of consumers said they want to get more fruit into their diets, and 87% said that they would like to eat more vegetables. Eighty-four percent of consumers said that eating less processed foods is important to them.
Whether portioned into handy to-go cups, or simply merchandised at the register as an alternative to candy and chips, fresh produce took center stage as one of the top grab-and-go concepts studied. Seventy-five percent of consumers said they would be likely to purchase raw fruits and vegetables they can eat on the go.
Fresh produce from the salad bar was a hit among younger consumers in particular, with 78% of consumers ages 18-34 stating they would be likely to purchase fresh food from a salad bar. Seventy-four percent of those 35-54 and an equal 74% of those 55 and older stated they would be likely to purchase fresh food from a salad bar.
More Fresh Produce, Please
When it comes to fresh and fast, consumers are willing to put their money where their mouth is. Sixty-six percent of consumers said they don’t mind paying extra for a snack if it’s fresh. Younger consumers were even more likely to shell out, with 73% of those 18-34 answering that they would be willing to pay extra for a fresh snack. Yet, some 66% of consumers agree that it is difficult to find fresh snacks on the go, suggesting there are plenty of opportunities for fruit, vegetable and salad grab-and-go offerings to grow.
Sharon Olson is the Executive Director of Culinary Visions, a division of Olson Communications based in Chicago, Illinois. Culinary Visions is a food-focused insight and trend forecasting firm that provides original consumer and culinary professional research for companies in the food industry.
Consumers Say They Want It — But What Does “Fresh” Or “Fast” Really Mean?
By Jim Prevor
Fresh and fast is the holy grail of today’s food industry. No less an organization than Tesco, the UK’s No. 1 grocery store, with substantial global business, thought this grail was the key to its rollout across America. It opened in California, Arizona and Nevada an operation called Fresh & Easy, and it drew on all its formidable resources to bring together a small store outlet it thought exemplified these characteristics — going so far as to build a mock store on a Hollywood sound stage to test the concept. Yet, with all their dedicated expertise and extraordinary resources, Tesco failed. In the process, Tesco lost almost a billion dollars and had to retreat ignominiously back to England.
Of course, this was just one effort of many. Right now, Hy-Vee, an innovative Midwest grocery store with almost 250 outlets, is pushing its Fast & Fresh concept. This is another small store concept but one updated to include trendy craft beers, drive-throughs, pick up for online purchases and more. As the company explains in the announcement of a recent store opening, the concept includes “Starbucks coffee with drive-thru, a growler craft beer station, and Hy-Vee Aisles Online pickup for convenience on the go.” It is a new concept with its future yet to be determined.
Clearly, the issue of defining both fresh and fast is not so easy to pin down, and consumer responses on these subjects sometimes involve words that mean different things to consumers than they do to the trade. In other cases, consumer behavior seems to contradict what consumers claim they are interested in doing.
When Tesco’s Fresh & Easy launched, for example, it included a high-quality fresh sandwich program produced in a dedicated commissary. These sandwiches are sold all over the UK to great success. Yet, to Americans, it seemed that “fresh” meant “made-to-order” as one would buy at, say, Subway — where the consumer can direct the person preparing the sandwich to “add a little more mustard” or “hold the tomato” or “go heavy on the banana peppers.” Those “fresh” sandwiches from the commissary translated to “vending machine food” for Americans.
Even the small format store, chosen to make things “easy” for consumers because they could so quickly get in and out, turned out to be problematic. In one sense the small format was “easy” or “fast,” but it didn’t include every item or brand. If consumers then had to make two grocery stops —possibly buckling children in and out of car seats and so forth — well what was intended to be fast or easy suddenly became a burden.
So, when you look at this study, you can see similar dilemmas. Consumers may indeed want things to be in season. But do they want to go without strawberries or blueberries in the winter? When, exactly, are bananas, pineapples or mangos “in season” if you are a Boston consumer where these fruits never grow?
What do consumers mean when they say they want “seasonal” specials? Are they saying local production should be cheaper because of less transport, and so, they hope to pick up some cheap blueberries? Or are they saying they want produce at peak flavor? Of course, the peak flavor offered by Chilean grapes is in the Chilean summer, which is winter in the United States.
When asked, they report themselves on the side of the angels. When given the choice, though, they often select steak over salad, ice cream over fruit and beer over orange juice.
Local is another word with numerous definitions. Some say local is within a state, while others set a mileage radius. Often it is cultural and political. We conducted focus groups in England right near the English Channel and listened to consumers speak knowledgably about their desire for local. They wanted to reduce food miles and carbon footprints. But when asked if that meant these British consumers would like to see a lot of produce imported from France just a few miles away — they resoundingly said no. They meant British. So, despite protestations about food miles, they all would prefer produce from the hinterlands of Scotland 800 miles away to French product.
It is interesting to note 87 or 88 percent of consumers want to get more fruits and vegetables into their diets, but since per capita consumption has been flat for decades, the logical question is why don’t they do so?
It may be a produce industry issue. Unlike manufactured foods, our products’ flavors are inconsistent, and their perishable nature leads to a high cost if consumers wind up dumping produce. Also, many vegetables are used as ingredients in an age when consumers want full meals.
It could also be consumers are not being entirely frank. Asking if consumers want to eat fruits and vegetables is not a morally neutral question. It is not like asking if you prefer chocolate or vanilla. All their lives, their mothers, schools and public health authorities have urged them to do the right thing and eat more fruits and vegetables. So, when asked, they report themselves on the side of the angels. When given the choice, though, they often select steak over salad, ice cream over fruit and beer over orange juice.
Of course, the industry must keep trying. We need to concentrate on producing better and more consistent flavors and more convenient and intriguing fresh-cut items. We also need more research to better understand what fresh and fast means to the consumer of today and tomorrow.