Produce Innovation Is Key to Category Growth and Consumer Engagement

Originally printed in the February 2023 issue of Produce Business.

By Anne-Marie Roerink, President, 210 Analytics

Across food and beverage categories, new items generate about 2% of annual sales. Some categories, such as candy and snacks, average more than 5%, with new items and line extensions engaging consumers — driving trial and impulse. Following that logic, “new” should be a key theme in fresh produce as well, particularly considering that only 12% of Americans meet the daily recommended amount of fresh produce, according to the recently released What’s New? 2022 study by the Southeast Produce Council. This same study found that innovation is indeed key to production efficiencies, category growth and consumer engagement.

What’s New? 2022 found that more than half of consumers are interested in new produce varieties. New mixed varieties and new sizes, such as one-portion cauliflowers, or mini avocados draw the highest interest. But also consider more package size variety in fresh cut and salad kits. Additionally, 46% of consumers are intrigued with the idea of enhanced functional benefits for fresh fruits and vegetables, such as extra Vitamin C, longer shelf life or tear-free onions. Boomers are much more likely to think this is a little too sci-fi, but 54% of Gen Z who grew up in a world of package claims and callouts like the idea.

The study also found the competition for fresh produce is much, much wider than frozen and canned. Supplements, smoothies, squeeze pouches, shots and center-store items touting plant-based are all taking a bite out of fresh produce sales, with 81% of consumers believing these types of items can help them reach the recommended amount of fruit and vegetables. These types of items bring a constant stream of new flavor, packaging, texture and ingredient innovation — underscoring the need for equal influx of “new” on the fresh produce side.

Additionally, the study found at-home food waste is a clear issue and consumers are open to various shelf-life innovations to help limit waste. Four in 10 Americans struggle with fruit and vegetables going bad before they could eat them and 91% end up throwing away some fresh produce. Additionally, 37% waste fresh produce because it is sold in packages that are too big for their households. Consumers do want to know the impact of shelf-life technologies on food safety and taste, above all.

The high level of inflation is pressuring restaurant trips and prompting 52% of consumers to change their orders when buying from restaurants, whether takeout, delivery or eating on premise. Study respondents also expressed high interest in a number of ways to boost fresh produce consumption at restaurants, centered on menu innovation.

More than half of consumers are interested in new produce varieties, but many are also open to shelf-life innovations to help limit waste.

Seven in 10 guests are interested in a trip to the salad bar complementary to a main entrée; 65% would like to see beverages/smoothies made with fresh fruit/vegetables on the menu; 63% are interested in fresh fruit as an option for dessert or an appetizer; and 60% like the idea of being able to swap traditional carbs such as pasta or rice with vegetables.

It is clear that innovation in fresh produce, whether on the farm, for the planet, in the store or on the menu can drive consumer engagement and sales. Innovating in today’s complex marketplace is hard, as much of the focus is on keeping the supply chain going. Yet, with only 12% of consumers meeting their daily produce consumption goal, our marching orders seem clear — keeping produce buyers on the hunt for the next big seller that will capture consumers’ eyes.

The online study among 1,500 consumers was conducted by 210 Analytics and commissioned by the Southeast Produce Council for the Southern Innovations 2022 conference. The study fielded in July, 2022. Anne-Marie Roerink is president of 210 Analytics, a research firm specializing in food retailing. Working closely with retailers, wholesalers, grower/shippers and trade associations, she has developed an excellent perspective on the ever-changing wants and needs of the consumer in a one-size-fits-no-one world. She understands the challenges and opportunities in the food and produce businesses today as well as the drivers of success tomorrow.