Regional Discrepancies in the Fresh Produce Industry

Originally printed in the July 2022 issue of Produce Business.

From coast to coast, the United States makes up approximately 3 million square miles. The country is the third most populous in the world and the fourth in square mileage. Size does matter, and the range of behaviors among such a wide variety of consumers is undeniable when it comes to fresh produce perceptions and purchasing habits.

The social, cultural, and geographic differences between the regions of the United States also influence consumers’ attitudes regarding sustainability and the environment. How do the regional differences impact grocery shopping behaviors among the 235 million Americans who consider themselves primary or secondary grocery shoppers?

Provoke Insights, a full-service market research firm and brand consultancy, conducts a biannual nationwide study among Americans. Provoke Insights’ latest fourth wave of research sought to understand Americans’ purchasing habits and trends in over a dozen categories, including fresh produce. Using this year’s fresh-off-the-press data from March 2022, it is possible to understand the latest consumer trends in fruits and vegetables and how they are affected by regional differences.

Pre-Prepared Salad Kits and Pre-Cut Produce are More Popular in Urban Areas

The majority of shoppers nationwide purchase fresh-packaged salads, with one-third picking them up at least weekly. The West and the Northeast has the highest propensity to purchase these versatile “salad kits.” Rural shoppers are the least likely to buy them, with only one-fourth purchasing them weekly. Meanwhile, urban and suburban shoppers have a higher likelihood of purchasing them weekly (33%).

Pre-cut produce is also popular with 81% of shoppers buying them. One-quarter of grocery-goers pick them up at least weekly. Like pre-cut salads, these shoppers tend to be from urban areas; there is no difference among U.S. regions.

Northeast Focuses on Sustainability

Although plastic-packaged produce is common, grocery shoppers are becoming more aware of the impact their habits have on the environment. More than half of food purchasers prefer buying loose produce without plastic packaging. Uniquely, the Northeast is the most likely to buy loose produce (60%). This region is the most willing to pay more for sustainable products; they are also the most environmentally conscious.

Rural shoppers are the least likely to seek out loose produce (47%), compared to urban (57%) and suburban (55%) shoppers.

Baby Boomers Purchase Local Produce

Locally grown produce is another crucial pillar of the produce industry, as many Americans venture to outdoor markets and home-grown sections of grocery stores. About half (55%) of shoppers seek local crops. Though there are no significant differences across regions or urban/suburban/rural, Provoke Insights’ survey reveals stark generational differences.

Baby boomers have the highest propensity to purchase locally grown produce (59%) compared to any other age group. Millennials and Generation X follow suit at 56% and 54%, respectively. Generation Z is the least likely to scour their grocery stores and local farmers markets for these items.

Unaided Brand Awareness Differs by Region

Unprompted awareness evaluates a grocery brand’s power, as shoppers can conjure a brand without being aided. This industry is unique, as one-third of these consumers cannot name a fresh produce brand. Of those who can name a brand, Dole overwhelmingly leads (26% awareness). Chiquita (4%) and Del Monte (2%) follow suit. Many private label brands remain top-of-mind, as Whole Foods 365, Kroger, and Trader Joe’s also rank in the top 10 brands.

  • Regionally, the Northeast maintains the highest awareness of produce brands, with over three-quarters of shoppers (76%) able to name a brand. The top names include Dole, Whole Foods 365, Del Monte, and Chiquita.
  • The West comes in second, with 68% of consumers being able to name a produce brand. Dole and Chiquita lead, but private labels rank high.
  • The Midwest is close behind, with exactly two-thirds of grocery-goers (66%) able to name a brand; Dole, Chiquita, Del Monte, and Whole Foods 365 rank the highest.
  • Shoppers in the South are least likely to be aware of grocery brands (62%). These shoppers are primarily aware of Dole, followed by Chiquita, Whole Foods 365, Del Monte, and Kroger.

Urban Shoppers are More Brand Loyal

Brand loyalty is a key metric for fresh produce brands looking to resonate with grocery shoppers. Over half (58%) of shoppers seek familiar brands when perusing fruits and vegetables. This is particularly true in urban areas, where nearly one-third (62%) of grocery shoppers purchase tried-and-true produce brands again and again — a 1% year-over-year increase from 2021.

Suburban shoppers (58%), followed by rural shoppers (54%), tend to be less loyal to their fruit and vegetable brands.

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. Carly Fink is the firm’s president and head of strategy and research; Breeda Bennett-Jones is an assistant researcher and strategist.

Methodology. Provoke Insights conducted a 15-minute online survey among 1,500 Americans between ages 21 and 65. The study was fielded from March 1-10, 2022. A random stratified sample methodology was used to ensure a high degree of representation of the U.S. population (household income, age, gender, geography, ethnicity, and parental status). Results based on this sample have a maximum margin of sampling error of +/- 2.5% at a 95% confidence level. Statistical differences between subgroups indicated in this research were tested at a 95% confidence level. Check out for the latest category research, including fresh produce.

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Geography Just One Key Variable For Marketing Produce

By Jim Prevor

Knowing that different products are popular in different parts of the country is valuable information. Shippers can know where to focus their marketing while retailers know what to stock.

In some cases, it is not the people but the situation that leads to variations in purchasing habits. For example, it is no shock that in urban areas, fresh-cut items and various salad kits are more popular. This author grew up in the suburbs, and we had a double Sub-Zero refrigerator/freezer in the kitchen, another large refrigerator/freezer unit in the basement, a third in a garage and a fourth out by the pool in a small cabana. When we moved to Manhattan, we just had one side-by-side refrigerator unit, literally less than a fifth of the refrigerator capacity we had back on Long Island. It is no surprise that we bought products that had already been cut and trimmed and took up as little space as possible.

There is also a chicken or the egg conundrum when evaluating consumer purchase practices. It may be true that consumers in the northeast are more likely to buy bulk produce. Perhaps, though, retailers are more likely to display bulk produce in that region. Is that a retail response to consumer demand? Or a consumer response to retail display practices? Just as they look for more fresh-cut items to avoid storing bulk produce, perhaps consumers in more urbanized areas also prefer to buy the amount they need to avoid storing things and filling up tight storage areas.

In marketing, geography is important – but geographical differences are often caused by demographic differences in the resident population.

There is also a possibility of demographic differences. We shouldn’t assume that the desire to avoid packaging always has to do with the environment. Tight urban apartments tend to have more single people or couples without children. Anyone who has had teenagers who bring over friends after practice or other activities knows there is no limit to demand. So if you have the room, and you have the teenagers, buying a package of produce is not a problem. If, however, you are a single person living in a small apartment, you may prefer to buy exactly what you want. A related issue for the produce industry is that bulk purchases can allow a small household to buy a variety: One red apple, one green apple, one yellow apple, one pear, one peach, etc. The variety may actually encourage consumption.

An issue for future research is that geography is not the only variable differentiating consumers. For example, the population in the Northeastern United States has the highest percentage of college graduates among U.S. regions. Is the focus on sustainability a function of geography? Education? Or is the obtaining of higher education partly a result of class norms and this corresponds with emphasis on environmental sustainability?

It is very difficult to know the extent to which various expression of interest actually alters behavior. When consumers answer a survey and claim they seek to purchase local, what does that mean? Do they switch retailers because one has more local choice than another? And what, exactly, is the motivation? We’ve done some studies that indicated that consumers thought local produce should be less expensive, figuring that less transportation would be required. Would the same consumers who claim they seek local continue to do so if they were informed that the cost would be higher because more efficient growing areas are further away, or that local transportation in less-than-trailer-load shipments is more expensive? Plus what about variety? Does preference for local mean they won’t buy bananas or pineapples or counter-seasonal produce? A related question is whether what consumers say on subjects such as this is actually true. Survey research alone can’t answer every question. If we actually looked at purchase data, it would be interesting to see whether consumers who claim to value local actually buy much more local than other people.

The unaided brand recognition numbers seem unusual to us, with proprietary research we have done for others, showing even relatively new brands such as Cuties and Halos scoring higher. It might be, though, that “unaided recognition” is not very important in selling produce anyway. It is rare for retailers to sell multiple brands of the same item, so the issue is how consumers react when they see Sunkist, or another label, on the shelf. Consumers being “brand loyal” in produce may just mean they keep shopping at the same store and that store continues to buy, and display, the same brands. If one is loyal to Tesla, because one thinks it is the best car, that person will probably stick with Tesla, even if the local dealership moves a few miles away. Most people don’t buy cars very frequently, so it is no big deal.

Produce is bought, typically, more than once a week. So, even if a consumer in a survey expresses a general preference for a particular brand, our experience is that as long as the retail outlet offers a competitive product of good quality, the consumer buys it. Comparing urban vs. suburban vs. rural brand loyalty involves many different things. A consumer in Manhattan may walk by three fruit stores between work and home, so it easy to stop and buy an item that one prefers, such as a brand. Immigration levels are also heavier in urban areas, and immigrants may have less English fluency and thus rely on brands in a way those more fluent in English don’t need to.

In marketing, geography is important – but geographical differences are often caused by demographic differences in the resident population.