Post-pandemic Appreciation of Produce

Originally printed in the June 2021 issue of Produce Business.

Nobody really knows what the future for online grocery shopping will be. With the COVID-19 pandemic receding, we can expect that habits developed as a result of the pandemic will also recede — but probably not totally. So, for example, people who avoided public places, such as supermarkets, and bought most food online may feel comfortable shopping again and so will reduce their online purchasing.

Perhaps more importantly, the world changes and this will lead to changes in shopping habits. Children go back to in-person school and so get lunch at school. Parents go back to work and eat lunch out with colleagues. Of course, none of this will be 100%, as some children have done well with home-schooling, and their parents will continue that; some people will be allowed to continue to work from home — maybe 100% of the time or maybe just 20% of the time.

The key point, however, is that higher and higher percentages of food purchases have been made every year in foodservice outlets, and that sector is already rebounding strongly. It would be very surprising if 20 years from now, when we look back at the graph, we didn’t see a continuation of this trend. After all, even changes can have counter-changes. So if people start working from home, they may also start wanting to travel more for business or vacations. They may want to start meeting friends and business associates for lunch. Husbands and wives locked up working in separate bedrooms all day may eat dinner out more frequently just to get out of the house.

The truth is that current technology poses large challenges for innovation among producers. It is not just that it is difficult to market an innovative product online; it is that the number of people even looking is small.

This writer purchased much food online for his family during the pandemic. The thing was… we entered a large order, about $300, then basically reordered it many times. Sure, if someone in the family specifically asked for an item, we would add it, but we didn’t have the time or desire to re-examine that entire order. We just ordered again. The first order took an hour, but, each time after that, it took two minutes.

Anne-Marie Roerink astutely notes that people “start with their past purchases when placing an online order.” It needs to be remembered though that this start is different from shoppers going into a physical store and starting their list with past items. They see other items regardless of what is on their list, whereas online, they may just press a reorder button.

Now this is an issue for all food items… how do you introduce something new and exciting online? But in produce, with seasonal variations, it is a large problem. Especially if, like us, people don’t so much “shop” online for food, as just order.

Perhaps the perfect program for a future will have commodity foods ordered online and consumers left to curate their fresh foods in a new-format retailing environment.

Fortunately, our sense is that the threat from online ordering in produce may be overstated because we suspect a hybrid model will emerge. Consumers may well order online items that are consistent — say a case of Dasani water or cans of Campbell’s Soup or boxes of Tide detergent. Stores may evolve to be smaller and not stock these things, but they will offer plentiful foodservice and fresh foods options.

The foodservice options will bring customers in frequently, and the fresh foods will change regularly. Produce will actually be highlighted more than ever, and foodservice options will increasingly be integrated as they will regularly feature the fresh food being sold in the stores. Indeed, the financial pressure on shippers may be to chip in so the Duck l’Orange becomes the Duck l’Sunkist!

Indeed the produce industry, which is accustomed to commodity sales, may find the need becomes more urgent to invest in product distinction and in recipe development. Fortunately, the investment in new grape varieties paints a picture for the industry of how we can develop products that offer distinct flavor profiles and unique quality attributes. Perhaps the perfect program for a future will have commodity foods ordered online and consumers left to curate their fresh foods in a new-format retailing environment.

Of course, all this may not be the direction the industry most needs to take. After being holed up for over a year, the Roaring 20’s may repeat itself, and the big opportunity may be within the foodservice sector as people decide to celebrate their newfound freedom.

Yet this a challenge too. How does the industry move the foodservice sector away from its overwhelming dependence on PLOT — potatoes, lettuce, onions and tomatoes? How do we get those premium products that are being developed in areas such as grapes to not only be used more in foodservice but to justify premium prices because consumers will prefer to buy more flavorful, and distinctive, dishes and even will be willing to pay a premium for dishes made with such items.

History is rarely linear, and the post-pandemic period will lead to changes unexpected. Our challenge is to make sure those changes lead to more appreciation, and consumption, of fresh fruits and vegetables.