( Photo by The Packer staff )

With the rise of e-commerce in grocery, one wonders how soon an award will be created called the “Online Produce Retailer of the Year.” Of course, The Packer’s Produce Retailer of the Year Award isn’t restricted to brick-and-mortar operators, but the point is that online retail is enjoying an ascendency that makes it increasingly relevant to fresh fruit and vegetable marketers.

If it were up to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, it is doubtful that any major online retailer would make now the grade to win the online award for outstanding produce sales efforts. The CSPI issued a Jan. 7 report that scolded online retailers for not promoting healthy food, including produce, at the same level they tout junk food.

In its Jan. 7 news release, CSPI said “online grocery platforms are generally undermining Americans’ efforts to eat well.”

Its conclusion, the group said, was based on a new scan of retailers’ promotions, pricing, placement, and delivery. Called “Scroll and Shop: Food Marketing Migrates Online,” the 45-page report said that more than half of food and beverage promotions on online retailers’ home pages and search result pages were for unhealthy products. 

More than 75% of the food- and beverage-related e-mails that retailers sent promoted unhealthy products.

The report looked at the practices of six national retailers operating in the Washington, D.C., area: Amazon Prime Now, FreshDirect, Peapod (Ahold Delhaize), Safeway, Target and Walmart Grocery. 

The release said Fresh Direct had the lowest proportion of unhealthy product promotions (29%) and scored the highest on produce quality (90%). Perhaps we have an award candidate with Fresh Direct.

On the other hand, Safeway had the highest proportion of unhealthy product promotions (72%).  

Margo Wootan, CSPI vice president for nutrition, said in the release that online retailers have the opportunity to increase American’s access to healthy food but instead have copied brick-and-mortar tactics by heavily promoting junk food.

While no one is losing any sleep now over the issues that CSPI raises, the online stakes for fresh produce are growing.

The report said that while online grocery spending of nearly $18 billion annually is just 6% of total grocery spending, the Food Marketing Institute has predicted the market could grow more than five-fold to $100 billion in 2025. With the U.S. Department of Agriculture offering participants in the food stamp program in select states the option to order groceries online, the agency will likely someday allow all participants to shop online.

While the CSPI looks for the USDA to create more policies to require online food stamp retailers to highlight healthy food, I am sure produce marketers could do more to design attractive opportunities for online retailers to promote fresh produce. They had better; the clock is ticking down on the old version of food distribution.

Tom Karst is The Packer’s editor. E-mail him at [email protected].

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