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The produce trends that are here to stay

Six months ago, business projections were nearly impossible. But at the start of June, as economic uncertainty wanes and Americans test the post-pandemic waters, some realities are emerging.

Produce industry leaders took their turns looking into their crystal balls in a June 2 virtual session of the United Fresh Produce Association’s BB #:145458 Reimagine Conversations series in June.

“We’re starting to see more normal patterns from consumers, and the last two months has been more steady,” said Martha Hilton, Vice President, Produce & Floral for Wegman’s Food Markets, Rochester, NY BB #:104173.

“Produce is up, and we hope that continues,” said Jeff Huckaby, President of Grimmway Farms, BB #:112956 Bakersfield, CA.

Several trends that started during the pandemic in 2020 are looking like they may be permanent, and that’s mostly good news for fresh produce marketers.

While the foodservice industry is getting closer to 2019 levels, and some reports say we’re already there, retail doesn’t look like it will return to lower 2019 sales numbers.

“We’re seeing consumers buy restaurant quality at stores and spend more, and we’re still elevated from pre-pandemic,” Hilton said.

As the weather heats up, people feel more comfortable returning to normal activities, said Laura Himes, Senior Merchandising Director, Produce, Walmart Inc. BB #:143789 Bentonville, AR

“Holidays will be huge because people are getting together, so celebration-type items will be hot this year,” she said.

That means continued demand for organic, fresh-cut, and other value-added at retail.

Consumers are also moving beyond some of the hoarding and isolating that occurred during lockdowns, said Chris Penny, Chief Manufacturing and Supply Officer, CAVA Mediterranean restaurant chain.

“We’re moving from comfort food and the COVID-15 to healthier,” he said about many consumers gaining weight during 2020.

Another trend that gained steam during the pandemic looks like it will keep going, said Paul Mastronardi, President, Mastronardi Produce BB #:115453 Kingsville, ON

“Online shopping is here to stay,” he said.

“That will continue to grow,” Himes agreed. “The elderly are one age group showing the highest growth” in using online grocery.

While 2019 saw pressure on suppliers to cut and reduce packaging, 2020 reversed that trend.

“Our packaged pepper program went four times over bulk during the pandemic,” Mastronardi said. “It protects and extends shelf life.”

Hilton said packaging becomes more important as online grocery sales grow.

Himes said Walmart is looking into lighter packaging and recycling options because leaders there know packaging is here to stay.

United Fresh’s Reimagine series of webinars run all through June.

Greg Johnson is Director of Media Development for Blue Book Services