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Produce makes inroads in center store

For years, the fresh perimeter, with the produce department as its crown jewel, outperformed center store – at times featuring more than double the growth rate.

But in the past year or two, neither the fresh perimeter, as a whole, nor produce has been the slam dunk growth engine it once was. In fact, in 2018, both frozen food and the center store outgrew the fresh perimeter (and produce) for the first time in years.

So…? Is fresh no longer in vogue? Is the health and wellbeing mega trend that drove many shoppers to fresh produce coming to an end?

I’d argue not. Far from it, in fact. I believe health and wellbeing are having an accelerating impact on grocery shopping, but other categories have caught on to the power of better-for-you.

Fresh produce has a natural health halo and has always been the first and logical step for most consumers when thinking about healthier choices. But the practical execution of that isn’t always easy in shoppers’ busy, on-the-go lives.

Plus, because of the general perception as healthy, fresh produce doesn’t always leverage and remind shoppers of its superior role in healthful eating to the extent that we could or should. We often just assume shoppers know and buy accordingly.

But more than anything, other products and categories are figuring out to leverage ingredient, production and nutrition claims to offer “little wins” in healthier eating — making consumers feel just a little better about the choice they made today versus what they bought yesterday.

And for most consumers, making healthier eating choices is all about little wins, not a complete change of lifestyle. So, with items in the frozen food aisle and center store very actively pointing out health, nutrition and production claims, shoppers are finding plenty of easier-to-manage, little wins outside of the produce department.

In fact, IRI found that center store items with a specialty/healthy/sustainable positioning represent roughly 17 percent of sales, but 50 percent of the growth.

But all that said, produce isn’t waiting by the sidelines and is increasingly making an appearance in center store in new and innovative ways. The snack aisle is perhaps the best example of this, as evidenced by the Sweets & Snacks Expo 2019.

Every year, the event runs the Most Innovative New Product Awards with nine categories ranging from chocolate and gum to sweet snacks and premium/gourmet. This year, roughly 350 items were enrolled, and two dozen of them were produce-based snacks (not counting potato and corn chips).

• Chips – much like the cauliflower-crust pizza, cauliflower-based chips appeared alongside the more traditional corn and potato chips. Other chips, crisps and crackers featured cassava, butternut squash, lotus root, chickpeas, peas, seaweed, plantain, coconut and ginger.
• Plant-based jerky – traditional dried beef and turkey meat snacks were supplemented by a variety of mushroom-based products, ranging from portabella mushroom jerky to a filet mignon plus portabella blended jerky. Other dried mushroom products did not draw the comparison to being a jerky alternative but just positioned themselves as a healthy protein snack.
• (Freeze)-dried produce – a prime example of how the snack aisle may be affecting produce sales are freeze-dried whole strawberries, great for on-the-go. Likewise, the awards saw dried Smyrna figs, dried mango slices dipped in chocolate and a plethora of banana and other dried fruit chips that frequently use the word “real” fruit/produce in their package callouts. In fact, that is much of the positioning for TruFru that took home two wins, in both Sweet Snacks and Premium/Gourmet. TruFru prominently references using whole raspberries that are dipped in chocolate.
What does all this mean for the produce industry? Well, for years we’ve talked about the difficulty of finding growth in a mature category and the opportunity in finding new consumption occasions, like snacking.

While fresh produce is looking at value-added fruits and vegetables aimed at snacking, others appear to be bringing fruit and vegetables into the more traditional world of snacking. All this is great news for the grower/shippers.

The exact new consumption occasion we’ve been talking about for so long. But for the fresh produce department in the supermarket and those supplying them, the rise of produce-based snacks in center store may be a red flag.

Learning from the positioning of these new plant-based snacks, alongside a focus on convenience, may be ways for fresh produce to better capitalize on the healthy snacking trend. Others are bringing some of the produce-based snacks (along with nuts and seeds) into the produce department.

Either way, snacking is rising as a behavior and offers fruits and vegetables a big opportunity to drive new dollars!

Anne-Marie Roerink is founder and principal of 210 Analytics, LLC, a market research company founded in 2010.