U.S.: Frozen produce sales rise as consumers stockpile amid coronavirus spread

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U.S.: Frozen produce sales rise as consumers stockpile amid coronavirus spread

U.S. grocers are contending with widespread panic buying of numerous products amid a rising number of confirmed cases of coronavirus, and they are also seeing increased sales of frozen produce.

Market research firm Nielsen said that as consumers assess their purchasing decisions around what can be stored for long periods and what cannot, there’s "little doubt that buying will shift toward shelf-stable and frozen options".

In January 2020, produce departments in the U.S. garnered average weekly sales of US$1.18bn. Those sales are clearly at risk in the coming weeks, Nielsen said, but “pantry produce” (frozen and shelf stable) could fill the gap "if positioned to consumers properly". 

Frozen fruit sales were up 7% in the week ended Feb. 22, 2020, the company's data shows. Fruit snack sales were also up by 13% during the same week, while dried beans were up 10% and pretzels were up 9%.

Nielsen explained that it’s a "fluid time", and retailers are balancing between keeping enough of the most sought-after supplies on their shelves while making contingency plans for longer-term gaps in their product portfolios.

"Fresh foods, for example, will face challenges as shoppers steer away from anything that may have traveled long distances, such as fruit and vegetables, or may have been exposed to the airborne virus," the company said. "We also expect products that come off factory lines or go through distribution systems in impacted countries to face challenges."

Meanwhile, industry groups and experts say grocers can tamp down on “panic buying” by planning ahead and trying to stay stocked, CNBC reports.

Grocery stores, including Costco stores, have seen a spike in sales of household items like hand sanitizer, face masks and cases of bottled water in recent weeks. 

Doug Baker, vice president of industry relations at food retailer trade group FMI, said U.S. shoppers have focused on buying items for prevention and preparedness. Now, in some parts of the country, they are shifting to response mode. He said they’re buying longer-lasting grocery items, such as canned goods and frozen produce.

He said retailers are doing their best to predict and respond to such shifts.

“We have to try to understand what consumers are thinking before they think of it,” Baker said. “In an event like this, you have to quickly adapt to whatever consumer demand is,” he was quoted as saying.

“And in a moment of crisis, you have some idea of the demand that may peak, but you don’t know the magnitude to which they’ll peak and the geographies where they’ll peak.”

In the U.K., supermarkets have reportedly drawn up “feed the nation” contingency plans that would help the country cope with any panic-buying brought on by a sudden escalation of the coronavirus outbreak.

Under the plans, supermarkets would work with suppliers to scale back the variety of foods and groceries available, and instead focus on maintaining supplies of staple products, The Guardian reported.

As of March 3 there were 51 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the U.K. In the U.S. there were 108 confirmed and presumptive cases of coronavirus, including seven deaths.

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