Meal solutions have been some grocery stores operated by Fresh Encounter have been emphasizing recently amid the coronavirus crisis. ( Dave Rhodes )

Fresh produce remains in high demand at retail, even as extreme stock-up behavior seems to have settled down and shopping patterns have shifted again.

“Although demand isn’t as high as it was at the beginning of the crisis, we’re still seeing much higher demand than normal,” said Chris Keetch, director of produce and floral for Carlisle, Pa.-based The Giant Co. “Shopping patterns have certainly changed as well, with the middle of the week now the new weekend. We have adjusted our supply chain to account for that so we can take care of our stores and customers at the high level they deserve and are accustomed to.”

Kevin Byers, senior produce merchandiser for Seattle-based PCC Community Markets, made a similar observation.

“The sales pattern is definitely different than normal but starting to feel predictable,” Byers said. “Since our state’s stay-at-home order, we have seen sales spread throughout the week, with weekends being the same volume or less than mid-week.”

Rob Ybarra, director of produce for Thibodaux, La.-based Rouses Markets, also noted the change in traffic flow throughout the week.

“Demand is still higher than usual, particularly compared to last year,” Ybarra said. “We ‘re seeing really consistent days Monday through Thursday with a big uptick on Fridays.”

Ybarra noted the Friday bump is likely due to crawfish boiling as many shoppers trade red meat for seafood as part of Lent leading up to Easter.

As a result, “lemons, onions, garlic, mushrooms and red potatoes are in heavy demand all day,” Ybarra said. “We’ve seen customers go back to the ‘oldies but goodies’ like bagged potatoes, onions, bell peppers, bananas, apples and oranges.

“What was popular 25 years ago are making their way back,” Ybarra said. “It’s obvious customers are cooking and looking for ‘comfort food’ again.”

Dave Rhodes, director of produce and floral operations for Findlay, Ohio-based Fresh Encounter, described produce demand as extremely strong.

“The big win categories have been potatoes and bananas, but very close behind has been our citrus category, apple category, berry and grape category, our tomato category, plus our bagged salad category,” Rhodes said. “ ... We are also in the process of expanding our Hello Fresh meal solution program to more stores. This program has, at this time, five different recipes that are ready in 30 minutes. Every kit serves two people, and they use innovative spice blends and fresh ingredients.”

Jeff Cady, director of produce and floral for Williamsville, N.Y.-based Tops Friendly Markets, said produce some items are seeing growing demand versus others.

“We are seeing a shift from hard-line staples like potatoes, onions and carrots to products like fresh berries and salads,” Cady said. “Not that potatoes, onions and carrots are not still experiencing strong sales, but there has been a shift.”

Michael Schutt, senior category manager for produce and floral for West Sacramento, Calif.-based Raley's, also noted that items across the department are seeing higher sales.

"Our experience may differ from the rest of the industry, but since produce was one of the first departments that could get back on the shelves rather quickly, our demand has been very consistent," Schutt said. "Whereas other departments may or may not be enjoying in-stock conditions, produce has been able to stabilize that portion of our customers shop. 

"Demand that originated with staples like onions and potatoes has remained strong and expanded to all produce, from packaged salads to fresh fruit," Schutt said. "Bananas, for example, have had a negative trend line in most markets over the last couple of years, but are now enjoying a sales lift during these challenging times."

Online

Demand for grocery pickup and delivery services has soared as people try to limit contact with others to comply with social distancing recommendations.

“Our online grocery services have experienced a huge lift during this crisis,” Cady said. “I believe they have their hands full keeping up with it. Many more first-time online shoppers are using the service.

“Produce plays a part, but I am sure it is not the biggest department being purchased at this point,” Cady said. “I have heard great things from folks who have used the service to purchase produce. Building consumer confidence in that channel is a positive sign for the future.”

Marcy Nathan, creative director for Rouses, said the company’s online business is up 700% year-to-date.

“Online produce demand mirrors the same uptick, with the most popular items being bananas, avocados, berries and bagged salads,” Nathan said.

Keetch also described a significant increase in online grocery demand.

“Produce, along with the rest of the store, has seen a dramatic spike in online shopping,” Keetch said, noting that the company is working hard to keep available the items that consumers are seeking regardless of whether they’re shopping in-store or online.

Byers said PCC is also seeing higher demand for its online grocery services.

Schutt described the challenges of delivering those services in the midst of the pandemic and all the measures being taken within stores to keep both shoppers and employees safe.

"Every retailer on the planet that engages in this platform should get a medal for the behind-the-scenes work they’re doing to provide the safest grocery shop possible," Schutt said. "However, the sheer volume is problematic for the system as a whole. The personal obstacles customers may have had about choosing their own produce is being replaced by trust in the team at the brick-and-mortar locations now more than ever."

 

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