People are thinking more about their health these days, which has been a big boon to produce departments in supermarkets around the U.S.
Chris Mentzer, director of operations for Rastelli Market Fresh, with two New Jersey-based locations in Marlton and Deptford, noted that produce is cranking, with sales up double-digits in 2022.
“We’ve been introducing plant-based meals in our department, which has been a huge trend and is only going to get stronger, so we integrated some of the foods into produce,” he said. “Also, the cost of meat and protein right now is so outrageous that people are going towards produce items and fortifying their pasta dishes with produce instead.”
Still, the No. 1 reason that produce is performing so well is that customers are more committed to eating healthy since the pandemic.
Mentzer shared that with squash season ahead, he expects that category to be a big driver of produce sales in the late fall and winter, as they are some of the heartier vegetables out there and can be plenty versatile.
Another hot item in 2022 has been mushrooms, due to a great growing season that led to reasonable prices for shiitake, portabella, and other popular types.
“But really, it’s across the board,” Mentzer said. “Everything is still flying out of the store, and everyone is thinking more about produce this year.”
The produce department at Lakewood, CO-based chain Natural Grocers continues to be a big draw for new customers and a comforting constant for regular customers.
“Though wanting to know where your food comes from and how it’s grown and produced isn’t a new concept to Natural Grocers, it’s a topic that has been gaining steady momentum over the last few years with consumers,” said Katie Macarelli, a spokesperson for the company. “From sales to engagement with produce-themed social media posts, produce scored high for us in 2022.”
The IRI’s August survey of grocery shoppers indicates that many are worried about higher costs of groceries brought about by supply chain issues and increased labor and delivery costs, but produce hasn’t been impacted as much as most categories, as people are still buying in normal—or even above normal—amounts.
Joe Watson, vice president of retail, foodservice and wholesale for The International Fresh Produce Association, noted that while fresh produce is not isolated from the supply chain issues, the category is “holding its own” and he is encouraged by the number of innovative solutions and technologies retailers and others in the supply chain are employing to keep fresh produce flowing through the system.
Still in August, the IFPA reported that while fresh produce sales recorded $5.9 billion in sales, a record number, it was buoyed by inflation, and in reality volume decreased year-over-year by approximately 5%.
Variety is the spice of life
Over the past few years, a number of new grape and apple varieties have become popular, and there’s been more of a demand for specialty produce, so one challenge for stores is finding enough space in the produce aisle for everything.
“We are very fortunate to have a good merchandising team, so we know based on our sales trends what our top sellers are,” Mentzer said. “We make sure we have enough of our NOUSI (never out of stock items), and then complement those with more unusual items. For instance, this time of season, you’re getting more into persimmons, guava, pomegranates—things that are a bit different.”
That translates to the bottom selling items in each category—perhaps the lowest-selling apples or oranges—being cut from the product assortment in favor of the newer varieties—with the option to bring them back when some other items fall out of season.
Each September, Natural Grocers conducts a customer survey called “Natural Grocers’ Best of the Best” and this year, Hass avocados, bananas, blueberries, baby spinach and broccoli comprised the top five organic produce items chosen. The results also help the store in its plan for dedicating future space.
“We source from local, organic producers whenever feasible, and our selection varies seasonally. That knocks out a big part of the decision-making dilemma, right there,” Macarelli said. “On top of that, good old-fashioned teamwork, and communication between our vendors, purchasing, operations and store managers certainly doesn’t hurt.”
Do shoppers still care about organic?
While organic produce is doing well in some supermarkets, at Rastelli Market Fresh, Mentzer sees most of the same customers buying the segment, and inflation is keeping new customers from experimenting with organic items.
“We have not seen the spike because of pricing as customers are trying to fill their carts with as much as they can,” he said.
But for a chain like Natural Grocers, which trades in all-organic, numbers have never been better.
“From the farm to the racks, we take great care to ensure that the produce we offer our customers is the very best it can be,” Macarelli said. “We also educate our consumers on the differences between organic and traditional growing practices so that they know what ‘real food’ looks like. Apples aren’t naturally the size of a baby’s head. GMOs, pesticides and preservatives might make something look good, but we believe food should undergo as few modifications as possible. That includes our produce.”
Getting the word out
Produce is a must-have item for most, so a big marketing push isn’t always necessary, but most stores still work on campaigns for specials or new items coming into the department.
For instance, Rastelli Market Fresh has a weekly circular that goes out to its more than 70,000 customers and its in-house marketing department shares news about what’s hot and new in the produce department on a daily basis.
While most supermarkets expect their produce departments to continue doing record numbers, the hope is that, as costs go down and inflationary woes dissipate, more customers will turn to newer items and continue finding innovative meals using produce in new ways.