Fresh continues to grow, but not nearly as much as frozen and shelf-stable, as has been the case in previous weeks. ( IRI and 210 Analytics )

Determining the new baseline for retail produce purchases continues to be a work in progress as an early Easter complicates comparisons to 2019.

This year the holiday fell on April 12; last year the holiday was April 21.

“Easter is typically a big week for the produce department,” Joe Watson, vice president of membership and engagement for the Produce Marketing Association, said in a news release. “But with social distancing in place, Easter celebrations and dinners were very different in makeup and size, which likely affected sales.

“On the other hand, the increased everyday demand on retail produce sales is likely to continue while shelter-in-place mandates are in effect, economic pressure is mounting, and shoppers seek fresh produce to go along with the items they have in their pantries,” Watson said. “At the same time, the ability for retailers to encourage impulse purchases continues to be a challenge because consumers are spending less time shopping and focused more on list purchases.”

He noted he expects different shopping patterns — from total trips and basket size to day of week, time of day, and online ordering — to continue for some time.

The week ending April 12 was the sixth week for which shopping patterns were disrupted because of the COVID-19 pandemic and measures to stop its spread. Fresh produce sales were 16.3% higher than the same week last year, according to IRI, but consumers continued to prize shelf life in the category, with frozen up 44.6% and shelf-stable up 41.8%.

“There has been some concern in the industry that consumers are perhaps refraining from purchasing fresh produce out of safety worries,” Jonna Parker, team lead for fresh for IRI, said in the release. “There certainly seems to be anecdotal evidence of that, but we’re also seeing somewhat lower household engagement for the four weeks ending April 5, at 94.6% versus the 99.3% household engagement over the 52-week look.

“This difference could indeed indicate some people pulling back on fresh produce,” Parker said. “At the same time, our survey work shows that 18% of consumers plan to purchase more fresh foods, and the rising produce growth rates are evidence of that.”

Nielsen also found that consumers are prioritizing frozen and shelf-stable produce, according to a news release.

“While the health and immune-boosting properties of fresh produce have brought growth to the category, many consumers have sought frozen and pantry-friendly fruits and vegetables much more than they did before the outbreak,” the firm wrote.

Nielsen noted that producers of frozen and shelf-stable produce will need to provide guidance on how to use those products regularly if they want the growth to be sustained beyond the crisis. On the other hand, for companies offering fresh produce, Nielsen recommended alignment with the local movement.

“For at least 15% of surveyed Americans and 14% of surveyed Canadians, buying local products (products from within Canada or the U.S.) has been something they’ve actively done more often than before COVID-19,” the firm wrote. “The more that growers and suppliers of produce can promote the specifics of which country, state, and even farm or neighborhood their product originates from, they can provide complete transparency to consumers who may fear the risks associated with products that have had too many global touchpoints.”