The Choice is Theirs: More Than Ever, Consumers Make Fresh Produce Personal

By Rick Stein, Vice President, Fresh Foods, FMI—The Food Industry Association

Originally printed in the October 2021 issue of Produce Business.

If picking is crucial for growers, choosing is increasingly important to consumers.

Of course, people have long enjoyed finding what seems to them like a perfect piece of fruit or type of vegetable. There’s an innate satisfaction in that process, both in the moment of discovery at the store and the time of consumption.

Today, there are more choices than ever. It’s almost quaint, thinking about the time when you could pick from red, gold or green apples. Contrast that with the current marketplace in which there is a plethora of apple varieties, from whimsically-named hybrids to packages of pre-sliced apples.

That’s just one form of fruit. Year around, shoppers browse a bountiful assortment of fresh fruits and vegetables available in both bulk and packaged form. Want mangos in Minnesota in December? You got it. How about some just-picked lettuce sourced within a 50-mile radius? It can be as close as a nearby vertical farm or perhaps even a hydroponic shipping container set up next to the store.

Adding varieties that are novel to consumers, whether limited-time, buzzworthy hatch chiles or a new type of strawberry, delivers excitement and provides them with more options at a time when they are in discovery mode and looking to break out of the ordinary, especially after eating at home for so long.

The latest Power of Produce report from FMI affirms that consumers like to have choices when buying produce. The data shows that about a third of shoppers bought a greater variety of vegetables (32%) and fruits (35%) last year, often driven by a desire for experimentation.

As they weigh their options for purchasing produce, consumers appreciate the opportunity to pick from an array of products that suit their lifestyles. Often, that means value-added products that save time and hassle during the preparation process, and provide them with a feeling of customization and/or personalization.

Our latest Power of Produce research found that the market for value-added vegetables grew 10.5% in 2020, while value-added fruit segment ticked up 1.2%. Value-added items appeal to choosy shoppers seeking something different or suitable for their needs, including produce that’s been chopped, cut, peeled or in snack form.

Offering more snackable fruits and veggies, in fact, is a significant opportunity for produce companies and retailers as they meet the tastes of variety-minded customers. Nearly a third (32%) of consumers say they want more items for veggie snacking and 34% would like more fresh fruit snacks, according to the 2021 Power of Produce. Although the salty snacks market has added more fruit- and veggie-based options in recent years, like lentil chips, chickpea puffs and plantain chips, fresh vegetables and fruits as snacks have a certain halo when it comes to nutrition and health. Packaged fruit and veggie snacks can be effectively merchandised for school or home office snacks, all-day grazing or even after-dinner nibbling in an era in which plant-based eating is on-trend.

Value-added produce also plays into consumers’ desire for convenience. Today, convenience is more than just resealable packaging and pre-sliced portions (although those are nice attributes). People want products that fit their unique needs at essentially every turn, whether it’s simple solutions for the breakfast daypart, like a smoothie kit, or a ready-to-assemble meal that has the protein and produce in the same take-home package.

Additionally, as we’ve all found out during the pandemic, the clamor for choice and the drive for convenience extend beyond products. People have more ways to shop and are accordingly buying across the omnichannel, whether it’s adding tomatoes to their buy online-pick-up-at-store order from their favorite supermarket, grabbing fresh foods from their local big box retailer or wandering around their town’s weekly farmer’s market. Think about how you shop for your own household and compare that to your choices even five years ago.

Research in the 2021 Power of Produce reflects these changes. The report reveals that 64% of shoppers have purchased groceries online in the past year, of whom 85% bought fresh produce with a click. The share of population buying fresh produce online spiked from 20% in 2019 to 54% last year.

So, as you think about ways to connect with choice-seeking consumers with new varieties and value-added items along with traditional favorites, consider how to work with retailers to better promote and sell fresh produce in the different commerce channels consumers are using. Given the perishability and personal preferences associated with fresh produce, clarity and communication are pivotal in the e-commerce space.

Certainly, consumers’ ever-growing expectation for variety keeps those of us in the food chain on our toes, especially when you factor in some of the labor, pricing and supply challenges facing the marketplace. But the good news is that many opportunities are there for the picking.

To learn more about the Power of Produce 2021 report and other category insights, visit I’m also happy to stay in touch with you or answer any questions – reach out to me at [email protected] or on Twitter at @Ricks_FreshFood.