Lower vegetables prices in the first quarter kept overall retail produce sales flat, but an early start and good quality fruit from California will help produce department sales this summer.

While average retail prices for fruit increased or held steady, most vegetable items experienced lower retail prices in the first quarter of 2012, according to FreshFacts on Retail, a report from the United Fresh Produce Association in partnership with Del Monte Fresh Produce and the Nielsen Perishables Group.

The report said total produce sales in the first quarter of 2012 were up a fraction, 0.2% ahead of first quarter of 2011 results. The average weekly volume for produce sold at retail stores was up 1.5%, while the average price for all fresh produce items was off 1.3%.

First quarter sales of vegetables were off 4% in the first quarter, reflecting a 4.8% decline in average prices. Fruit sales were up 3%, as volume increased 1.4% and average prices rose 1.5%.

The sluggish sales start isn’t necessarily a bad omen for the year, said Ed Odron, owner of Ed Odron Produce Marketing Consulting in Stockton, Calif.

“What’s happening is that the early quality — cherries, peaches, the watermelons — has been outstanding,” Odron said. “The customer will buy fruit because it is the first of the season and first on the market, but they will come back because of quality and taste.”

While heavy rain in Florida could cause some disruption in melon supply, Odron said California’s outlook was positive for continued strong quality and volume.

The FreshFacts report covered the period from Dec. 31 to March 31, and represents about 63% of all dollar sales for supermarkets selling more than $2 million. The data doesn’t include sales from Wal-Mart, club stores, small independent retailers and alternative format retailers such as Whole Foods.

The complete FreshFacts report is free for United Fresh members and $50 for non-members. For information about the report, contact Shannon Young, United Fresh education manager, at 202-303-3400 ext. 405 or syoung@unitedfresh.org.

Berry surge

According to FreshFacts, U.S. berry category sales soared 18% in the first quarter, buoyed by a whopping 24% gain in volume and a 5% decline in price.

Odron said growing consumer demand for blueberries hasn’t seem to diminish demand for strawberries. “It is lifting that category,” Odron said.

Apples, avocados and pears joined berries as the only top 10 fruit categories enjoying sales growth in the first quarter.

The report showed seven of the top 10 vegetables decreased in sales during the first quarter. Tomatoes suffered a 13.5% decline in sales and lettuce dipped by 13%. Mushrooms was the only vegetable category to experience an increase in dollar sales and volume, rising 2% in sales and 1.5% in volume.

The report showed that organic vegetables experienced an 11% gain in sales in the first quarter, accompanied by a 13.9% increase in volume and a 3.5% uptick in average prices. Organic fruit sales surged 28.6% on the strength of a 23.4% gain in volume and a 2.1% increase in average retail prices, according to the report.