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Online Produce Shopping: The Path Forward

While it’s easy to see that the pandemic changed the way consumers look at grocery shopping, both in store and online, it’s harder to project where they go from here.

Idaho Falls-based research firm Category Partners has a breakdown for that with two new consumer surveys.

Blue Book Services has teamed up with Category Partners to dig into the survey and help our readers understand what is happening, why it’s happening, and how they can attract consumers most effectively, in a series, Online Produce Shopping: The Path Forward.

What did we find out?

That’s what we’re going to tell you over the next few months, but we can start with the big picture.

Four years ago, essentially no fresh produce was sold online. As retail chains improved their websites and fulfillment, it began to increase to the point where most were investing in e-commerce, early adopters were routinely shopping that way, and retailers began promoting their technology investments.

One of the best examples of this was the Walmart Super Bowl commercial from February 2020 featuring famous movie and tv cars using Walmart’s online pick-up service.

“The trend toward online grocery shopping began to take off in a significant way in late 2019. It was a trend that was already underway, but the slope of the adoption curve made a noticeable change at that point,” says Cara Ammon, SVP of research for Category Partners. “Adoption appeared to be in full-swing.”

By the beginning of 2020, 17 percent said they bought produce online weekly. Thirty-six percent of consumers were buying at least some of their groceries online by this time. We all know what happened next.

By the summer of 2020, as the country was emerging from COVID-19 lockdowns, that number changed to 51 percent of consumers were buying at least some of their groceries online.

It is true that online grocery shopping isn’t ideal for fresh produce. As of July, even with all the advances, consumers buy fruits and vegetables more often in-store than online (96 percent say they buy at least some of their groceries in store vs. 22 percent who say they buy produce online).

It’s important for both retailers and suppliers to understand that consumer habits and preferences online are not the same as in-store.

Here are three key ways produce marketers can improve the frequency and volume of fresh produce purchases online:

-Market to both in-store and online shoppers
Attract online shoppers to the produce department just as you would do in-store. Provide eye-catching photos and product information that draw in consumers and generate sales. Improve photos and rotate them on your website frequently.,

-Educate staff on how to pick top quality produce
Consumers like the convenience but have concerns about freshness and quality. Suppliers should work with retailers and other online services to educate their employees about produce and how to pick top quality produce that will satisfy their customers.

-Be sure consumers see your products
Consumers tend to buy produce online less frequently than in-store, which means fewer opportunities to get it right. This underscores the importance of ensuring consumers see fresh fruits and vegetables and are compelled to buy. Work with retailers to ensure items are displayed in a prominent location and included in suggestion algorithms.

“Consumers interact with produce differently online as compared to in-store. But the data are pretty clear. The overwhelming majority of online shoppers are buying in-store as well. It is important for retailers and suppliers to understand how the two channels complement and differ, to understand how consumers prioritize elements of their experience in each channel. And to ensure that both channels are not operating in silos but are working in tandem to elevate the consumer experience and retailer value to their shoppers,” says Tom Barnes, CEO of Category Partners.

The survey
Category Partners conducted an internet survey in May 2021 of 3,000 U.S. online produce consumers. The survey used a nationally-representative sample by region of the U.S.

Consumers were screened to include only shoppers who regularly shop for produce online.

Then, Category Partners conducted a second 3,000-respondent survey of the general population to determine how many U.S. shoppers currently buy produce online and which demographic groups are more likely to buy produce online. Category Partners was able to ask non-users why they do not shop online and what might get them to try online shopping.

Greg Johnson is Director of Media Development for Blue Book Services