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ShopRite-canned_vegetables-empty_shelves-COVID19.jpg Russell Redman
Consumers have stepped up buying of canned, bottled or frozen vegetables and fruit across the store, Nielsen reported.

Produce shelf life weighs heavily for shoppers amid pandemic

Shelf-stable, frozen fruit and vegetables sales grow faster than fresh, Nielsen says

When it comes to fruit and vegetables, longer shelf life has taken on renewed importance to U.S. consumers during the coronavirus pandemic, market researcher Nielsen finds.

Americans sheltering at home are prioritizing healthy foods offering an extended shelf-life, including produce. Though fresh items remain key to consumers, they’ve stepped up buying of canned, bottled or frozen counterparts across the store, Nielsen reported. For the year to date through April 4, for example, purchases of frozen and shelf-stable fruit grew at three to five times the rate of fresh fruit.

U.S. dollar sales rose 24% for frozen fruit and 17% for shelf-stable fruit for the period, compared with 5% year over year growth for fresh fruit, Nielsen said. Likewise, vegetable dollar sales up 19% for frozen, 32% for shelf-stable and 10% for fresh. Canada is seeing a similar trend across those categories.

“The impact of restricted living has extended well beyond early pandemic planning. North Americans have continued to pad their pantries with frozen and shelf-stable produce more than we’ve seen in years prior,” Nielsen said in a report titled “Pantries Padded With Produce as North Americans Prepare for the COVID-19 Long Haul.”


Among specific items, frozen and shelf-stable pineapple dollar sales climbed 39% and 29%, respectively, for the year through April 4 while fresh pineapple sales dipped 3%. Meanwhile, dollar sales of fresh peaches inched up just 1% during the period versus increases of 20% and 22%, respectively, for frozen and shelf-stable peaches. And for asparagus, dollar sales growth was 19% for frozen, 25% for shelf-stable and 3% for fresh. Blueberries, corn and green beans exhibited a similar sales dynamic.

“For companies that play in the space of frozen and shelf-stable produce, it’s important to provide consumers with continued guidance and inspiration into ways to use these products they have recently stocked up on,” explained Nielsen. “Reminding and encouraging the regular use of the produce they’ve stored will be essential to maintaining growth even beyond COVID-19 impact. Companies must transform the trial that has taken place in this time of emergency into longer-term habits and use cases for canned or frozen goods.”


In fresh produce, however, shoppers have shown an increased affinity toward locally produced fare. Nielsen said 15% of Americans surveyed (and 14% of Canadians) reported they’ve actively purchased local produce more often than before the COVID-19 outbreak.

“The more that growers and suppliers of produce can promote the specifics of which country, state, and even farm or neighborhood their product originates from, they can provide complete transparency to consumers who may fear the risks associated with products that have had too many global touch points,” Nielsen noted.

Changing consumer buying preferences for produce reflect broader shifts in food and grocery purchases across the store and in shopper behavior brought on by the coronavirus crisis. Sales in the center store, for instance, are noticeably above that of perimeter departments.


For the four weeks ended March 28, when consumer stock-up buying surged amid the spread of the virus, U.S. dollar sales in the center store jumped 43% for food and 39% for nonfood, compared with 29% for perimeter fresh/perishables categories, according to Nielsen.

“From baking to beauty care and all the meal preparations and self-care in between, consumers are trying many ways to solve for gaps in the products and services they now have limited — or no — access to. As a result of the increased product needs at home, sales of consumer packaged goods (CPG) this year have swiftly exceeded the norm from years prior,” the researcher said.

Total CPG sales for the year to date through March 28 ballooned about $23.7 billion in the U.S. and $2.7 billion in Canada versus a year ago — higher than the CPG sales growth for both nations for the full 2019 calendar year, Nielsen pointed out.

“Fresh products typically found within the store perimeter have benefited from some of this growth, but sales spikes were much less pronounced than in center-of-store foods and household essentials,” the researcher said.

Part of this trend comes from the “homebody economy” emerging from COVID-19 community lockdowns, which led or required most consumers to stay at home. Fifty-four percent of Americans said they eat and/or cook at home more often now than before the pandemic, according to Nielsen’s “Impact of COVID-19 on Consumer Behavior” survey in March, which covered more than 70 global markets. Also, 24% said they now order takeout food more often, while 17% reported they order food for delivery more frequently.

“Knowing that consumers from both countries are well within the behavioral threshold of restricted living, it is to be expected that cooking and eating at home have become increasingly more popular,” said Nielsen. “In fact, four in 10 Canadians and five in 10 Americans indicate they cook or eat at home more often now than before the COVID-19 outbreak.”

Looking ahead, most consumers think they’ll be grappling with the effects of coronavirus for the near term or perhaps longer. Fifty-eight percent of both Americans and Canadians believe COVID-19 will last four to six months, while roughly the same percentage (28% versus 27%) think the impact of the virus will linger for six months or more.

“Many North Americans expect the impact of the novel coronavirus to last for quite some time,” Nielsen said. “That means the inordinate rise of in-home food and beverage consumption we’ve seen this year will likely continue for the foreseeable future.”

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