Sales remained elevated through the middle of May, according to retail scan data. ( IRI, 210 Analytics and Produce Marketing Association )

The peaks and valleys of fresh produce sales growth amid COVID-19 appear to have leveled off, with three straight weeks of gains in the high teens.

Dollar sales of fresh produce the week ending May 17 were 16% higher than the same period in 2019, according to IRI. Sales increases during the previous two weeks were 17.1% and 17.2%, respectively. Vegetables continue to outperform fruit by a large margin — 21.6% growth versus 11.2% growth for the week ending May 17.

Whether those gains will be sustained remains to be seen, as restaurants beginning to reopen might result in shoppers returning to their earlier habits and eating out more. There has also been some concern about whether impulse sales will occur at the same rate because many people are shopping online more and hurrying through stores rather than just browsing.

So far, however, the seasonal items that benefit so much from impulse sales have seen even more demand than usual.

“We are off to a strong start for the summer fruit and vegetables season on the retail side,” Jonna Parker, team lead for fresh for IRI, said in the release. “Cherries, for instance, came on very strong the week of May 17 with a more than 50% sales increase over last year. Berries continued to track well as did melons, both great indicators of summer season strength.

“On the vegetable side, seeing that corn continued to track nearly 30% ahead of the same week last year shows that consumers are engaged in the typical summer activities, albeit within new social distancing realities,” Parker said. “These are some of the first signs that summer trends of years past will persist even during these unprecedented times.”

She noted that the early response to the arrival of cherries should remind retailers to shout about the fruit from every available platform.

“Cherries are the perfect example of an important summer fruit coming on strong, jumping right to being the seventh-highest seller for the week of May 17,” Parker said in the release. “This is cherries’ terrific impulse power at work, but an important question to ask ourselves is whether shoppers who are ordering online are aware of the new cherry crop being available. Communicating about new offerings on social and digital is more important than ever.”

Dollars versus volume

The gap between dollar sales growth and volume sales growth for fresh produce overall narrowed to pre-COVID levels the week ending May 17, but noticeable gaps persisted on some items.

“On the fruit side, we saw continued significant volume-dollar gaps for items such as pineapples (16 points), avocados (14 points) and apples (9 points),” Joe Watson, vice president of membership and engagement for the Produce Marketing Association, said in the release. “The consumer demand is there, but the market conditions are putting pressure on price. But gaps for items such as melons have significantly narrowed, and others are actually seeing dollars track ahead of volume, including tangerines and kiwi.”

In the vegetable category, items seeing significantly higher volume gains than dollar gains are Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, onions and peppers, per IRI. Potatoes, corn and asparagus, on the other hand, have seen larger increases in dollar sales than volume sales.

“As supply and demand will continue to change as foodservice demand is coming back online, this will be an area of continued change in weeks to come,” Watson said in the release.

The next weekly report from IRI will capture Memorial Day weekend sales.

“IRI found that one-third of Americans had different plans than in 2019, with 19% saying they would not be hosting or attending get-togethers and 13% foregoing trips that they undertook in prior years,” Anne-Marie Roerink, principal of 210 Analytics, said in the release. “It is likely that just as seen with Easter and Mother’s Day, people celebrated the holiday, but celebrated in different ways.”