Growth over 2019 increased again the week ending July 12. ( IRI, 210 Analytics, Produce Marketing Association )

Retail sales of fresh vegetables continue to significantly exceed 2019 as many consumers continue to eat more meals at home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Spikes in cases of the virus have prompted many states to bring back stricter rules on social distancing and other precautions. For restaurants, this has included closing dine-in service or once again limiting seating capacity to a fraction of the norm.

In that environment, fresh produce sales for the week ending July 12 were up 11% to $1.39 billion, according to IRI. Fresh vegetable sales were up 16.1%, while fresh fruit sales were up 6.5%.

“The continued strength of vegetables is very telling,” Jonna Parker, team lead for fresh for IRI, said in the release. “Fresh vegetables are supporting the continued at-home meal occasions that moved over from foodservice, particularly lunch and dinner. But at the same time, it is great to see that fruit had a strong week, and importantly, all sales measures were strong: dollars, volume and units.

“Unit purchases in fresh produce increased by 10.9% over the second week of July versus last year, while volume increased 9.5%,” Parker said. “This to points to more, but smaller, packages sold during the non-holiday week as well. This affects pre-packaged produce and the types of promotions that will be effective in the current environment.”

On the fruit side, berries led the way with $133 million in sales the week ending July 12, while seasonal favorites melons and cherries came next in the list at $94 million and $74 million, respectively.

“This is a great sign for the weeks to come,” Parker said in the release. “In other areas, such as peaches and avocados, consumer demand is certainly there, but in a highly deflationary market, dollar sales trail volume sales by a wide margin.”

Peaches were up just 1.1% over 2019 to $26 million, while avocados were down 1.4% to $48 million. Oranges brought in $20 million, up 49.8% from the same time in 2019.

On the vegetable side, eight of the top 10 items saw double-digit gains, including the following with growth of 20% or more compared to last year: tomatoes (up 21.6% to $95 million), peppers (up 22.9% to $55 million), mushrooms (up 24.2% to $27 million), corn (up 44.2% to $38 million) and broccoli (up 20.6% to $22 million).

Fresh-cut salads continue to show that convenience still matters in a time of more cooking at home. For the week ending July 12, those sales were up 8.7% to $132 million.

Joe Watson, vice president of membership and engagement for the Produce Marketing Association, noted that overall the numbers were positive for retail, though they also reflect the reality that the foodservice side of the produce industry continues to struggle.

“We knew Independence Day was a tough bar to beat, so it was hard to say where everyday demand would land us in the non-holiday week,” Watson said in the release. “I am pleased to see that everyday demand for fresh produce is strong, boosting sales gains back into double digits over year ago. But while the strong retail demand is a big plus for our industry, the reversal on opening in-restaurant dining is a devastating hit to foodservice produce sales.

“I am hopeful that the resilience and creativity of our industry during the early months of the pandemic will help optimize foodservice demand once more,” Watson said.