Steve Lutz of Category Partners LLC says consumers who are committeed to the organic category are still buying organic during the COVID-19 pandemic. Sales of packaged produce have picked up during the pandemic as well, as shoppers are looking for convenient, quick ways to stock up or consider packaged produce to be safer than bulk. ( File photo by Ashley Nickle )

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Are consumers changing their preferences around fresh produce because of COVID-19? And will their new behaviors stick around after the pandemic has subsided?

Those aren’t easy questions to answer, Steve Lutz believes.

Lutz, vice president of insights and innovation for Category Partners LLC, Idaho Falls, Idaho, cited consumer behavior toward organic produce and packaged produce.

“On one hand, food attitudes seem to have remained consistent, and by that I mean people that are oriented around organics, they are still buying organics in the face of the pandemic.”

On the flip side, Lutz said the preference for packaged produce has seemed to increase during the pandemic.

“Does that mean that people that had sustainability issues (with packaging) no longer have those issues, or have they been tamped in some way?” Lutz asked. 

That’s possible, he said, but it also be simply related to fewer trips to the grocery store.

If people aren’t shopping as often, they are stocking up when they do go, and that plays into more packaging.

Consumers are looking at how they can economize and get the quantity they need.

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“My guess is that it’s not so much that issues that consumers had about sustainability have disappeared; I think that in the short term they are being offset by trends that are currently more powerful.”

Food safety concerns could also be linked to greater packaged produce sales, he said, even though health authorities have said there is not evidence that food (or food packaging) can spread COVID-19.

The Produce Marketing Association has published consumer sentiment surveys throughout the pandemic. In a survey collected May 11-13, 500 shoppers were asked whether they were buying more or less fresh produce. 

The survey indicated that 46% said they were buying more fresh fruits and vegetables, while 16% said they were buying less. 

For those who indicated they were buying less, the PMA survey found:

  • 47% said they are buying fresh produce less frequently so they were concerned how long it would last;
  • 37% said they were concerned about the safety and cleanliness of fresh produce;
  • 29% said that it was hard to find what they want in the stores they shopped; and 
  • 22% said produce costs too much and they were having financial issues.

Lutz said the idea that consumers have put a higher emphasis on food safety has been reflected in other departments. 

“You certainly see that played out in the bakery and the deli department,” he said.  

Self-serve items like the doughnut case and salad bars have been closed in some stores.

“It is clearly playing out at retail of consumers walking into a store and saying, I want to make sure the products I buy have some sort of a sneeze guard,” Lutz said, adding that could mean a preference for clamshells or bags over bulk produce.

Economic effect

The percentage of consumers that have been forced to economize because of the faltering economy is on the rise, and those consumers may look for packaged produce to help them stretch their food budget.

“What we saw very clearly in 2008-09, in combination with trip compressions, is the portion of consumers that are forced to economize and are forced to adhere to a tighter food budget and that leads them, very often, to value packed produce, and that favors packaged produce,” he said.

Considering trip compression, food safety, and tighter budgets, Lutz said it is “not really surprising” to see an uptick in sales of packaged items.

A huge number of people working in the hospitality and foodservice industries have been hurt by the lockdown put in place because of the pandemic, and Lutz said 39% of consumers said they have been hurt economically. Many of those consumers are younger, he said. 

At the same time, surveys have shown that younger consumers are more sensitive to sustainability issues than older consumers.

“If the economy and the pandemic forces change based on who gets hurt, and young people are being hurt the most, and they’re also the people that have the highest levels of (concern with) sustainability, you start to see why this perhaps takes a backseat for now,” he said. 

“Because the people that have the highest urgency around that topic are the ones who are being forced economically to make the most changes.” 

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