Where Change and Opportunity Meet in Produce

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

Originally printed in the May 2023 issue of Produce Business.

The millennia-old quote about change — “The only constant in life is change” — may have been coined by a Greek philosopher, but it has proven especially apt for the food industry. The ongoing cascade of changes is evident at the point of sale in the produce department, from the types of products consumers are choosing to the point of sale itself.

Although change is disruptive by definition, those in the produce supply chain, including farmers, growers, distributors, wholesalers and retailers, can find new opportunities in an evolving marketplace with shifting consumer needs and interests. As I review the findings from FMI’s 2023 Power of Produce report, I am struck by some key, data-supported changes that can unlock new innovations and sales.

Here are some of the changes that have been fueled by the events from 2020 through today:

  • Consumers are marrying their newfound cooking savvy, borne from the pandemic, with convenience. The latest Power of Produce shows people are getting creative with food, like combining carryout food from restaurants with other foods and ingredients from their home kitchens. According to the findings, 61% of consumers occasionally or frequently add fresh fruit or vegetables to restaurant takeout or delivery.
  • Sources for food and meal inspiration are shifting. For example, the data reveals that video content is the main source of ideas for younger Gen Z and Millennial consumers, while written recipes still inspire Boomers and some Gen X shoppers. Video-based recipes can generate excitement and help capture produce dollars from younger buyers.
  • Given the gaps in recommended consumption of fruit and vegetables and actual intake — along with consumers’ expressed interest in maintaining their health and well-being — those in the produce and retail industries have a strong case for encouraging consumers to make changes to their diets.

Creativity and new product development can lead to greater engagement and fresh produce sales.

  • According to this year’s Power of Produce, one-third of consumers would like to know more about the recommended amount or what constitutes a portion of fresh produce. Sharing recommendations and ideas, both in the produce aisle and in other avenues of communication, can help close the consumption gap and open up new sales opportunities for produce. Whether it’s explaining proper portion sizes or providing more fruit and vegetable choices and recipes, there are ways to meet people’s strong interest in health and nutrition.
  • Some products are emerging as innovators, as consumers’ tastes evolve. As the Power of Produce indicates, sales of berries are really strong right now, and the number of varietal, flavor and package introductions in that category underscores how creativity and new product development can lead to greater engagement and sales.
  • People want — and are increasingly making real efforts — to curb food waste at home and support producers and retailers who are also working to scale back on waste. Beyond trying to be more sustainable, shoppers in a tight economy are also practical —six in 10 American households cannot financially afford to waste fresh produce. Suppliers and retailers can provide solutions with shelf-life initiatives and functional packaging, among other offerings.
  • Population trends pose opportunities. According to the Power of Produce, fresh fruits and vegetables are selling at above-average rates in states that are continually attracting more residents, such as Idaho, Colorado, Texas, Arizona, Florida, the Carolinas and Georgia. Those who supply and sell produce in those states can keep that in mind, as they order and merchandise produce.
  • Advancing technologies can spur sales and repeat sales. For instance, well over half (58%) of people believe personalized promotions based on their past purchase history are a good or great idea. Add to that ecommerce — although Power of Produce data indicates that online produce sales have hit a plateau — 35% of current online buyers reported that they will buy more this year.

There are ways to improve online produce conversions, such as posting total price versus price per pound, using clear product photos and sharing details about the number of portions and portion sizes.

These are just some examples of the different ways people are eating and shopping for fresh produce, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic, supply chain issues, inflation and new technologies have changed the overall landscape. Whether the changes are subtle or transformational, addressing the latest behaviors can move overall produce consumption in the U.S. from its current flat rate to a rising one that lifts everyone in the farm-to-table supply chain. After all, a new landscape offers new views and new growth.

Rick Stein is vice president of fresh foods for FMI, The Food Industry Association, based in Arlington, VA. You can Find The Power of Produce and more fresh foods resources at www.FMI.org/FreshFoods.