November 11, 2020

Steve Lutz talks COVID produce shopping trends

Consumers have moved away from eating at restaurants and more toward shopping for food and eating at home the past nine months, and that’s been out of necessity due to COVID-related foodservice restrictions.

That’s been good for most category sales at the supermarket, including all areas of produce — fresh, shelf-stable and frozen — in terms of volume. But how have consumer buying habits changed?

Steven Lutz, Category Partners Senior Vice President of Insights and Innovations, spoke Nov. 11 on the topic during a virtual presentation for the West Coast Produce Expo.

Whether shopping in-store or shopping online through a pick-up or delivery option, consumers are gravitating toward “what they know,” rather than impulse buys or seeking new items, Lutz said.

“I think the staples (i.e. bananas, potatoes, salad) come into the play as they do their weekly larger food spend,” Lutz said. “The impulse threads don’t carry the same weight.”

Steve Lutz, Category Partners Sr. VP of Insights and Innovation

In terms of online shopping, Lutz said consumer feedback shows retailers are doing a good job presenting information on what’s available, but it’s still a challenge to get buyers to think beyond what they know when they can’t physically see what’s available.

“Someone sees black grapes and says, ‘Oh, those look good,’ but they may not have been thinking about buying black grapes before,” Lutz said. “Envy is a really good variety of apple, but how many consumers are going to shop through and find the Envy apple and then pay a premium price?

“You buy what you need based on what you know and what you’re aware of.”

Because of perceived health concerns, consumers are showing desire to buy more prepackaged produce.

“There is a higher level of interest in consumers buying packaged produce than we’ve ever seen in history,” Lutz said. “The whole issue around food safety and sanitation and being able to shop safely in stores and buying products that haven’t been contaminated or exposed, a packaged produce item delivers on that promise. That’s what consumers are telling us.”

Sustainability is still a big deal to many consumers, but said safety has taken to the forefront during the pandemic.

“The sustainability issue is still a huge issue and will return, but right now it’s been suppressed a little because of COVID. It’s more about safety, Lutz said.

Eating at home has probably benefitted retail vegetable sales more than fruit sales, because “vegetables tend to be eaten with meals that have been eaten out before,” said Lutz, but added that whether fruits or vegetables, organic or conventional, folks are just buying more food at the store than they were pre-COVID and that likely will last well into 2021.

When asked how quickly habits would return to pre-COVID levels once the pandemic is under control, Lutz said it won’t be overnight.

“It’s not going to be turn on the light switch,” he said. “Restaurants will have to reopen, get their staffs up and meet all the safety protocols.

“We’re going to be in this at least through Q1 (2021), if not Q2, where consumers are forced to buy from supermarkets.”

The West Coast Produce Expo virtual event is free to attend.

— By Zeke Jennings, managing editor




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