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Category update Early Easter drives March deli, protein sales.png Getty Images

Category update: Early Easter drives March deli, protein sales

Overall Q1 unit volume increase of 1.5% marks first quarterly gain since Q2 of 2021

The early Easter holiday this year helped drive sales throughout the store in March and led to an overall gain in food and beverage unit volumes of 1.5%, according to research from 210 Analytics and Circana.

It was the first quarterly gain in unit volumes since the second quarter of 2021, as inflation during the last two years led consumers to cut back on some grocery purchases.

Strong categories for the month of March included the deli department overall, and especially deli prepared foods and deli entertaining, as well as the meat categories. Fresh produce and frozen fruits were other highlights in terms of both dollar sales and unit volumes in March.

Deli sales remain strong

Supermarket deli sales continued to gain in March, with overall dollar sales up 2.8% and unit volumes rising 5.7%, compared with a year ago. Dollar sales of deli entertaining rose 5.3%, and deli prepared foods were up 4.3%. Dollar sales of deli cheese, meanwhile, rose 3.1% in March, helping offset a 3.8% drop in dollar sales of deli meats.

“Deli-prepared foods remain a bright spot in grocery retailing,” said Anne-Marie Roerink, principal at 210 Analytics. ”As consumers balance cost versus convenience, prepared foods are hitting a sweet spot and are increasingly stepping up as true restaurant alternatives.”

She said the early Easter holiday also likely boosted deli sales in March, although she noted that unit sales in the bakery were “surprisingly flat.” Total bakery sales were up 2.2% in dollar sales and 0.6% in unit volumes, driven by 2.5% dollar sales gains and a 1.6% increase in unit volumes in perimeter bakery.

Strong performers within perimeter bakery included breads, which were up 10% in units, although dollar sales increased just 0.3%. Cakes, cookies, and muffins all saw low-single-digit gains in both dollar sales and unit volumes in March.

Meat gains reflect holiday spending

Deflation in several meat categories helped suppress dollar sales gains in March, although dollar sales still rose 7.2% over year-ago levels, with volume in pounds up 6.6%, compared with a year ago. Among fresh meats, which were up 8.1% in dollar sales, fresh beef sales rose 11.9%, fresh turkey was up 9.3%, and fresh lamb increased 28.4%.

The Easter impact was particularly evident in sales of smoked ham, which saw an 84.5% increase in dollar sales and a 114.6% increase in pound volume, relative to March of 2023. Those gains helped propel processed meat sales to a 5.2% increase in dollar sales and a 12.7% increase in pound volume for the month.

Fresh beef showed the highest price inflation of any meat category, with prices per pound up 7.4% vs. a year ago, while smoked ham prices were down 14% vs. year-ago levels.

Produce dollar sales up 5.1%

Dollar sales in the fresh produce department increased 5.1% in March, to $8.8 billion, while volume in pounds increased 3.8% amid modest price inflation overall. Sales showed a sharp increase in the last week of March, with dollar sales and unit volumes up 9.5% and 9.6%, respectively, as consumers shopped for Easter meals.

March standouts among fresh fruit included berries, mandarins, and pineapples, as fresh fruit overall posted dollar sales gains of 5.4% and volume gains in pounds of 2.1%.

Among fresh vegetables, many of the largest categories had strong unit volumes in March, including tomatoes, potatoes, onions, peppers, cucumbers, carrots, and broccoli, although dollar sales were mixed. Overall, fresh vegetables posted dollar-sales gains of 4.9%, with pound volumes up 5.8%, compared with March of last year.

Frozen fruit volume up in double digits

Frozen fruits were a standout category in the freezer case for March, notching an 8.3% gain in dollar sales and an 11.5% increase in unit volume, compared with a year ago.

Frozen food sales overall were flat for the month at $8.1 billion, with a 1% increase in unit volumes. In addition to frozen fruits, other categories that showed gains in dollar sales and unit volumes for March included desserts, processed meats, and baked goods. In terms of dollar sales, desserts were up 2.4%, processed meal sales rose 4.8%, and sales of frozen baked goods increased 11.7%. All three categories also showed dollar sales gains for the latest 52-week period.

Frozen seafood also eked out volume gains in March, with pound volumes up 2.9%, although dollar sales were down 5.7% compared with a year ago. Fresh seafood, meanwhile, saw a decline of 3.2% in pounds and 4.6% in dollar sales for the month.

Fresh salmon, by far the largest seafood category, had a slight uptick in pounds sold in March, at 0.4%, although dollar sales slid 2.6%. Frozen salmon was up 0.7% in pound volume and down 6.2% in dollar sales.

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