10 Hot Produce Trends

It pays to know what consumers are looking for, experiencing and embracing when they shop for fresh fruits and vegetables. According to FFVA producer members and others in the industry, 10 trends are defining the marketplace for fresh produce in 2012 and beyond.

1. Awareness of Health Benefits

Consumers are much more attuned to the health benefits of fruits and vegetables than in decades past. For example, the Nielsen Perishables Group says sales of avocados are up 8 percent from 2009. Jan DeLyser, vice president of marketing for the California Avocado Commission, told Progressive Grocer that’s because people have learned that they are rich in heart-healthy monounsaturated fat and full of fiber. “In the mid-‘90s, three-quarters of people polled about avocados responded that lack of healthfulness was a barrier to purchase. Today, it’s just the opposite,” DeLyser said.

Another fruit that quickly disappears from the produce shelves because of its healthy properties is blueberries. The USDA Economic Research Service’s data show an impressive increase in national per-capita consumption of blueberries, rising from 0.26 pounds in 2000 to 1.11 pounds in 2010. “Talking about the many health benefits of blueberries is our biggest marketing tool,” said blueberry grower Bill Braswell.

2. Branding

The concept of branded produce is picking up steam as well. The Florida Sweet Corn Exchange recently unveiled the Sunshine Sweet Corn brand, emphasizing the corn’s exceptional taste.

Elizabeth Peterson, public relations and media manager at Plant City-based producer Wish Farms, understands why branding has become a hot trend. “It’s instinctual for people to purchase a brand they are familiar with, and it’s easier to make a purchase when you can relate the product to a previous experience,” she said. “Being able to trust a particular brand provides reassurance, making your shopping experience much easier.

3. Buy local/know your farmer

Consumers continue to have a keen interest in knowing where their food comes from, and the trend shows no sign of slowing. Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan recently told the Associated Press that the local food movement is “the biggest retail food trend in my adult lifetime.”

Although the definition of “locally grown” differs, the trend is thriving as more small farms, farmers markets and specialty food makers are selling goods to nearby customers. Vermont ranks as the state with the most successful local food movement with 99 farmers markets and 164 community supported agriculture entities serving a population of less than 622,000. Other states that strongly support locally grown/produced food are Iowa, Montana, Maine and Hawaii. Surprisingly, Florida was in the bottom five with only 146 farmers markets and 193 CSAs for 18.5 million people. However, because Florida produces a wide variety of fresh produce in the spring, fall and winter, shoppers can find fruits and vegetables grown in-state almost year-round. The statistics were compiled in the 2012 Strolling of the Heifers Locavore Index, which used USDA and census figures.

Restaurants are embracing the locally grown movement as well. Bradenton’s Pier 22 incorporates as much locally grown food as possible in its menu, including locally caught snapper and grouper. The restaurant will host a class on sustainable cooking class May 24. Companies such as the Suncoast Food Alliance specialize in delivering local food to restaurants that are interested in sourcing food produced nearby. Its website says that “as a marketing and distribution company of locally grown products, the Suncoast Food Alliance is bridging the divide to meet the local demand for fresh items.”

Further, buying locally grown produce and other food helps to support American farmers and prevent waste of healthy food. FFVA executive committee member Teena Borek says that 60 percent to 70 percent of this past winter’s tomatoes grown in the Homestead area never found buyers because of cheap imports coming from Mexico.

“Free trade is not necessarily fair trade,” Borek said. “We need people to go to the supermarket and insist on local produce when it’s in season. They need to use social media to spread the word as well. When the North American Free Trade Agreement was passed in 1994, all we could do was go to Washington, D.C., and say it wasn’t fair. We took out expensive newspaper ads. Now people can demand food grown in this country by getting on Twitter and Facebook. It’s free and it works at a grassroots level.”

4. Evolving community supported agriculture

The first CSAs were founded in the 1980s as a solution to the disappearance of the family farm. They invited local consumers to share both the harvest and the risk of farming by paying in advance for a season’s worth of bounty. Shareholders made bids for payments to cover the farm’s budget and shared the rewards if they arrived.

Today, many CSAs are much different – they’re more like a subscription for a weekly box of produce. Something will always come, even if has nothing to do with a local farm, and there’s no need to commit. An example is Spacegirl Organics. It’s a fine company that does a great job at what they do, but customers do not share in the risk as they would in an actual CSA. A nice selection of produce will always arrive on your day of delivery.

True CSAs do still exist, even though the concept has evolved.

5. Use of social media

In addition to allowing consumers to demand food grown in the United States, social media allows producers to interact on a personal level with consumers.

Darrel Genthner of citrus, juice and blueberry producer Wm. G. Roe and Sons says the company uses Facebook and Twitter to increase sales. “We have conducted advertising campaigns in Atlanta and Florida on Facebook. We’re also consistently expanding our Facebook page’s fan base and engaging in ongoing communication with our customers to help them learn more about the Noble Juice brand. We’ve seen our sales percentages increase in the double digits over the previous year.” Facebook posts often provide links to coupons on the company’s website.

Social media also provides an opportunity to connect with customers in case of a crisis. In case of emergency, a company should be among the first to post the news – first on its website and then “on every single social media channel you have. It’s called taking responsibility and showing you care,” PR Daily reports

6. Transparency and traceability

Elizabeth Peterson says Wish Farms uses FreshQC ™, a patented tool for traceability that provides specific information on each package of strawberries, blueberries and grape tomatoes. Customers may scan the label with a smart phone to learn more about the product and its origin. Data such as grower, field, harvester, time of harvest, variety, planting date, and nursery source is stored electronically and can be accessed by the grower as needed.

“FreshQC was originally developed as a system for quality control, but it quickly became a way for us to connect with our customers and hear about their experience with our produce,” said Peterson. “Every package of Wish Farms produce features a FreshQC™ sticker on top with the question, ‘How’s my picking?’ With this we are actually soliciting feedback, inviting consumers to tell us exactly what they think.

7. Consumer outreach and promotion

Another way Wish Farms communicates its brand is to reach out to attendees of the Plant City Strawberry Festival. For the second year, Wish Farms sponsored the event’s soundstage. “As the title sponsor, our signage was displayed throughout the Strawberry Festival Amphitheatre, and we featured promotional videos before each concert performance,” said Peterson.

This year also brought a blueberry festival to Florida to showcase the expanding availability of the product grown in the state. And blueberry wine is starting to make its presence known.

8. New trends in value-added

Many produce companies are also packaging their products for consumer convenience to stimulate purchasing.

Green Giant Fresh has seen increases in sales from marketing of side dish-type packages, such as Sweet Carrot Slaw and Tri-Color Slaws, combinations of cabbage and other vegetables. Other items such as fruit-and-dip combinations, veggie-and-dip combos and party tray configurations tap into the snack market.

Wish Farms sells value-added tray packs for bell pepper, squash and zucchini. “It’s a product that is more attractive to the consumers, and it’s been in higher demand from the retailers,” said Peterson

9. Changes in the produce aisle

Supermarkets evolve constantly to take advantage of newly acquired knowledge of how people shop and how to get them to make purchases. The Wall Street Journal noted that the produce section “has become the equivalent of the popular kids’ school lunch table.” Packaged food manufacturers are clamoring to place their products among the fresh fruits and vegetables because they say shoppers perceive produce to be wholesome, fresh and of high quality.

Another trend in food merchandising is that people don’t just buy food at the grocery store anymore. Although the grocery industry has added millions of square feet of capacity, it’s not being built in grocery stores. People are buying food in places like supercenters, dollar stores, drug stores, liquor stores, airports and specialty shops.

10. Technology in the supermarket

A growing number of shoppers are using Web-based smart phone applications such as Grocery Gadget (image at left) when they go grocery shopping. These apps allow shoppers to update lists, find specials, scan barcodes and more. One even lets the shopper shift items that haven’t been put in the cart yet to the top of the list by shaking the phone.

And that’s just the beginning of what can be done with a smart phone at the grocery store. Last summer, supermarket giant Tesco created virtual grocery stores in places like subway stations in South Korea. Images of products are scanned using smart phones and the order is delivered to the shopper’s door later that day. Learn more here.

In the United States, Peapod has taken a cue from Tesco and built virtual groceries in nine cities including Chicago, where it has taken over a 60-foot pedestrian tunnel at a downtown subway station.

Other innovations in shopping include hand scanners, which allow shoppers to scan as they shop and avoid the checkout hassle. Some chains have installed “broccoli cams” that monitor produce bins and determine when restocking is necessary. Electronic shelf edge labels are also being used to easily update pricing information. Watch more here.

With more and more shoppers strapped for time, consumer trends are likely to continue to be driven by the need for convenience without sacrificing quality or increasing cost. In addition, new technologies will continue to allow consumers to access more information about what they eat, who’s providing it and where it’s produced. With the technology available, shoppers are more likely then ever to demand that extra information in order to make educated purchases.

Photo at top: Peapod’s virtual supermarket. Caption from PRNewswire: “Peapod, the nation’s leading Internet grocer, has placed a virtual grocery store in Chicago’s highly traveled State and Lake Station Tunnel. Not only is Peapod the first in the nation to pilot this on-the-go, virtual store concept, but it’s also the first company to mount a “tunnel takeover” ad campaign of this magnitude in Chicago.” (PRNewsFoto/Peapod) Learn more here.

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