U.S.: Retail fresh produce sales remained strong in September even as shopping patterns normalized
Fresh produce sales at U.S. retail remained highly elevated in September despite consumer shopping patterns largely returning to pre-pandemic normality, according to a new report.
A joint report by 210 Analytics, the PMA and IRI found that fresh produce sales were 10.7% higher year-on-year during the four September weeks, generating a total of $5.04bn. The percentage increase in sales is similar to August and July, which were 9.1% and 12.4% higher respectively.
Frozen and shelf-stable produce sales also remained strong, seeing growth of 18.5% and 12.6% respectively.
Anne-Marie Roerink, President of 210 Analytics, said that while the pandemic had caused "changes in virtually all shopping habits" - from when and where people shopped to the types, amounts and brands they purchased - many of these habits are now "trending back toward normal".
"According to IRI’s latest survey wave of primary shoppers in late September, anxiety levels over in-store visits have decreased significantly, with 58% of shoppers feeling relaxed," she said.
"This is an improvement of 15 percentage points since July. This begs the question whether people have similar increased confidence in restaurant visits, which could result in more of the food dollar going to foodservice.
Additionally, two-thirds of shoppers now spend about the same amount of time shopping in the store as they did before the pandemic.
Joe Watson, VP of Membership and Engagement for the PMA said that retail demand for produce continued to be "very strong".
“While shopping habits are trending back toward normal, at-home consumption remains elevated across meal occasions," he said.
"We need to continue to support shoppers in their meal planning and preparation. Our best pandemic sales driver has been trip conversion and our biggest win in the next few months is selling fresh produce every trip, online and offline."
The additional $489m that fresh produce generated in sales versus the same time period in 2019 encompasses an additional $171m in additional fruit sales and $313m in additional vegetable sales.
Vegetable sales have outpaced fruit sales throughout the pandemic and have generated 28 weeks of double-digit growth since the onset of the pandemic shopping patterns in mid-March.
In fruit berries remained dominant in sales but grapes and apples came on strong in September, according to Jonna Parker, Team Lead for Fresh at IRI.
"Melons had a monster Labor Day week and continued to do well throughout September. Others that performed very well during the four September weeks were oranges and lemons, whereas avocados continued to be plagued by double-digit deflation."
The top 10 in sales on the vegetable side included seven items that had double-digit increases versus a year ago.
“Lettuce is the dominant player on the vegetable side, driven by bagged lettuce,” said Watson. “Other meal basics including tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, etc. all continued to track well ahead of 2019 levels, which underscores that consumers are still cooking more meals at home."
More than 78% of September lettuce sales was made up by fresh-cut (packaged) salad. Dollar gains for fresh cut salad have been very constant at around 10% above year ago levels and September was no different. Volume sales increased 9.3% and units grew 7.0% during September versus year ago levels.
Everyday fresh produce demand continues to hold around 10% above a year ago levels as new Covid-19 case counts continue to rise and fall in different regions of the country, Roerink said. While everyday demand seems to have set into a new and elevated pattern, the holiday demand is expected to be vastly different.
According to the latest IRI primary shopper survey wave from late September, only 29% of consumers expect to host or attend a meal with extended family who do not live with them for Thanksgiving. This is down from 48% last year.
Friendsgiving and traveling out of state are also more unlikely this year, as Americans are most likely to stay home and celebrate with immediate family, according to 34% of respondents. This will have a profound impact on grocery spending.
Roerink explained that early indications for December holiday celebrations and grocery spending suggest a similar impact as Thanksgiving, and even more are planning to cut back on groceries to save money as many are expecting higher food prices come November and December compared with the 2019 holiday season.
Shoppers plan to spend less on groceries, gifts, and decorations across grocery, mass, club, dollar and especially drugstores and local small businesses. Online-only retailers are currently estimated to net a slight gain.
"These predictions point to many potential changes for the grocery world," Roerink said.
"Much like the pandemic-affected holidays to date, it is likely that the winter holidays will see small gatherings, which will affect grocery choices. Additionally, less holiday travel will likely express itself in continued retail versus foodservice spending for those at home versus on the road."