It’s been a historically bad year for the climate, as hurricanes, rising temperatures, and other threatening weather events have created havoc for produce farmers throughout the world.
“I can honestly say that the market has been challenging with weather conditions and shipping; prices have been higher than normal as selections and quality have been mediocre,” said Chris Mentzer, director of operations for Rastelli Market Fresh, which has two New Jersey-based locations in Marlton and Deptford. “Organics have slowed due to their increased cost; families are stretching their shopping dollar which seems to impact the organic produce sales this year.”
One thing he’s noticed is a large increase in local produce, with sales up 15% over last year.
“It seems that supporting local farms took precedence over mainstream product, and supporting small farmers seemed to be very important to our customers this year,” Mentzer said.
And in the months ahead, supermarkets in the U.S., will be seeing many beloved produce items rising in cost even more, as supplies are less available in many categories.
As the year draws to a close, prices on mangoes are expected to rise considerably, as there’s a shortage coming from Ecuador and Peru due to historically bad weather events. Reports in October from both countries show there has been reduced flowering, which will greatly affect supermarket volumes in December and the early months of 2024.
In fact, some of the mango companies project the percentage of mangos expected from those two countries are more than 50% lower than what was seen last season. For instance, Ecuador exported 12 million boxes last year, but expect only 4 million this season.
Additionally, the mango category faced higher than normal pricing on sea freight, labor, and energy costs in 2023, so that has added to the challenge.
“Over my more than three decades in the mango industry, I have never witnessed such an effect by El Nino on production,” said Albert Perez, CEO of Continental Fresh, a mango importer headquartered in Miami. “We expect pricing to be higher, but it’s really availability that will be worrisome. Stores should expect a major shortage.”
Not “berry” good
While the berries category isn’t as dire as mangoes, there’s still some concern around the industry for the upcoming winter season.
Much of the blame is related to cooler temperatures in the Santa Maria region of California, which has greatly impacted strawberry ripening. After all, approximately 90% of all strawberries grown in the U.S. originate in the Golden State.
On the store shelves, raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries are all selling well according to many retailers and supplies are coming in steady, so there shouldn’t be too much concern for those.
Jim Roberts, president of sales at Naturipe Farms, a grower-owned producer of fresh berries, including blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, and cranberries, said that consumers this year have been more invested in “specialty” berries, such as those that are larger in size or an unexpected color.
“Social media and online trends have been driving a lot of buying habits in the past several years, so berries that capture people’s attention while scrolling tend to go viral,” he said, adding that retail clients have been asking for more of these types of berries, as the product has been flying off the shelves.
Expect low supply
Supermarkets will also see less kiwi available over the next few months, due to heavy rains and flooding in Italy and high temperatures in Greece, two of the major exporters of kiwi to the U.S.
“We will see a crop that’s probably 30% less this year from the two,” said Nick Pacia, CEO of A.J. Trucco, a Vineland, N.J.-based retail supplier of kiwi. “Right now, it seems to be about two weeks late from where we were last year [as of mid-October), but the quality is expected to be ok.”
Then there’s grapes, which have also been hurt by weather, most notably Hurricane Hilary, which came roaring in vineyards and damaged a significant amount of table grapes. Grocery stores should therefore expect a smaller supply in December and January, and prices will be higher than last year. The saving grace could be grapes coming from Peru and Chile at the beginning of 2024, as so far, production is looking strong in both areas.
Chicago-based Circana, a consumer trends advisor, revealed that shoppers in 2023 have made 10 more trips this year on average than they did pre-pandemic in an effort to find the best value for their money.
“As consumer behavior changes, so does the competition in the fresh produce department,” said Jonna Parker, Circana’s principal and fresh foods team lead. “Price sensitivity in the category has increased, largely due to the decline in high-unit volume deals from large CPG companies. This shifting landscape calls for a strategic pricing overhaul.”
She suggests grocers optimize promotions to cater to today’s discerning shoppers, including staying competitive on price for staples that drive trips to the store, and advertising effectively through in-store signage and retailer apps.
At Rastelli’s stores, there is a “veggie butcher” station within the produce department, which has attracted more people to the department.
“This area features all new produce for sampling, as well as offers free produce cutting to our guests,” Mentzer said. “You can bring in anything to be cut, from acorn squash to local, fresh produce.”
Roberts said retailers should create a display at the front of the produce section that is reminiscent of a fruit stand and offering several different products in one place is a great way to draw attention to produce and sell more than one item.
“Fresh berries are the largest category in the produce department and often times are under-allocated display space relative to their sales volumes,” he said. “It is important to constantly refresh the display and expand the display as much as possible with multiple pack sizes to meet the consumers’ needs. If consumers are reaching for blueberries and see strawberries sitting right next to them, they’re more likely to add those strawberries to their cart as well.”
With the winter holidays coming up, Roberts added that supermarkets should capitalize on the season’s trends and events that are popular with consumers and additionally create displays around those.