Produce retail sales remained elevated the week ending July 26. ( IRI, 210 Analytics and Produce Marketing Association )

Fresh produce dollar sales at retail remained elevated more than 10% above year-ago levels in late July as more consumers reported worrying about the coronavirus pandemic.

A recent IRI survey showed that 56% of consumers were “extremely concerned” about COVID-19, the highest share since the first week of May, according to a news release. More than one-third of Americans said they were more concerned than they were the previous week, especially residents of California, Texas and Florida, where case counts have been growing.

“This heightened concern is further delaying the recovery of foodservice sales,” Anne-Marie Roerink, principal of 210 Analytics, wrote in the release. “Additionally, many shoppers are dealing with financial pressure ... 30% of primary grocery shoppers say their financial situation is a little or a lot worse off than it was a year ago.”

Against that backdrop, fresh produce dollar sales at retail the week ending July 26 were up 11.7% from the same week in 2019, according to IRI. As has been the case throughout most of the pandemic, there was a large gap between growth for vegetables and growth for fruits; fresh vegetable sales were up 16.7%, and fresh fruit sales were up 7.5%.

The trend of elevated produce sales at retail is expected to continue as many people are still avoiding eating establishments and other gathering places due to COVID-19.

“According to the latest wave of IRI primary shopper research, more Americans plan to further delay their return to normal activities, though in part this may be due to state mandates disabling them to engage in these activities,” Jonna Parker, team lead for fresh for IRI, said in the release. “Up from 56% two weeks prior, 73% of consumers will wait at least four more weeks before going to a bar or club; 56% will wait this amount of time before dining out at a restaurant; and 45% before going to a coffee shop.

“As a result of rising concern to re-engage with foodservice, many fresh produce dollars will likely continue to flow to food retail,” Parker said.

More than fresh could see more big growth in the coming weeks; Parker noted that pantry-loading is making a comeback as concerns rise over the increasing number of cases.

The top fruit items the week ending July 26 were berries (up 8.9% to $133 million), melons (up 12.9% to $91 million) and cherries (up 21.6% to $72 million).

For fruit overall, “dollar gains are heavily impacted by deflation for some areas, such as avocados,” Joe Watson, vice president of membership and engagement for the Produce Marketing Association, said in the release. “With volume gains of 42.9%, there is very strong demand, but lower prices barely put dollar gains above last year’s levels. Grape demand is not quite where we normally see it, but we have a lot of summer left and peaches are up in volume, though deflation is pulling dollar gains into the negative.”

The top vegetable items the week ending July 26 were lettuce (up 9.1% to $166 million), tomatoes (up 20.8% to $81 million) and potatoes (up 19.6% to $60 million).

“In contrast to fruit, all top 10 vegetables increased in dollar sales versus year ago and eight in 10 did so with double-digit gains,” Watson said in the release. “Whereas the order and items in the top 10 for fruit are very different each week, vegetables has virtually the same line up each week with just a few items shuffling up or down.

“The highest weekly gain percentage goes to corn, at +32.7%. This was fully driven by price increases, with volume down 3.1%,” Watson said.