Produce packs a punch

Shoppers looking to eat healthier and cook more meals at home are making the produce department a key stop on their shopping trip.

By Kim Ann Zimmermann

As convenience stores and even dollar stores pump up their offerings of fresh items, including fruits and vegetables, supermarkets need to stay on top of their game to keep shoppers happy.

While it is true that consumers can buy a banana or an onion at any number of retail outlets, most still seek out fresh produce at their local grocer. Experts say there are three key factors driving fresh produce sales at supermarkets—variety, quality and customer service.

According to New-York based market research firm The Nielsen Co., dollar sales in the fresh produce department rose 4.2% for the 52 weeks ended Jan. 22, which is a significant jump from the anemic 0.9% growth seen in the previous tracked period. Unit volume rose 2.5% during the most recent tracked period.

A number of vegetable categories, including spinach, onions and garlic, saw double-digit growth in sales and volume. Fresh herbs also experienced solid sales growth, a strong indication that consumers are continuing to cook at home even as the recession eases.

Spinach saw the largest overall gains in the produce department, with a 29.7% jump in sales dollars and a 24.8% volume increase.

Potatoes, which experienced a 12% decline in sales in the 52 weeks ended Jan. 23, 2010, bounced back nicely with a 2% growth in sales and a 4.6% rise in volume for the most recent tracked period.

In the fruit segment, apples and kiwis were strong performers in terms of dollar sales, as they were up 4.2% and 13.4% respectively. In the case of apples, volume was down slightly, indicating that fewer apples were sold but prices were higher.

Precut salad mixes was one of a few categories that took a substantial hit during the period, with volume down 9.9% and dollar sales down 8.3%. Grapefruit sales dollars were down 4.6%, but volume was down 3.8% due to limited availability as a result of frost conditions.

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