In the wake of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), Australian consumers have ensured their pantries are packed with food essentials. But new Nielsen Homescan research has revealed that consumers are stocking a healthy store of produce items, both shelf- and fridge-friendly, as well.
In the four weeks ending March 22, overall growth of the fresh produce category reached a two-year high, up 5.1% in volume sold compared to the same period a year ago. This marks a break in trend from recent months where fresh produce had experienced generally flat sales growth. During this same period in March, many retailers withdrew promotional activity in an attempt to manage demand. Meanwhile, consumers contended with higher average prices due to supply chain challenges lingering from the bushfires and drought. With these factors considered, the increase in fresh produce sales during March is well above expectations.
Sales of fresh produce were also heavily supported by online shopping. Dollar sales for fresh produce sold online increased 37.2% in the four weeks to Feb. 22, compared to a year ago. But due to mass demand, supply chains were pushed to the limit. As a result, the e-commerce sales trend for fresh produce fell to 9.5% in the following four week period ending March 22.
With more time at home and less desire to frequent stores due to the risk of COVID-19 exposure, Australians are shopping for produce differently than we’ve seen in the past. Similar to consumers in North America, the latest data highlights that Australians are stocking up on fruits and vegetables that have a longer shelf-life, and in some cases, seeking produce options that are more cost-effective such as canned or frozen fruit and vegetables. In the month of March, both shelf-stable and frozen produce have seen unprecedented sales growth.
A deep-dive into the fresh vegetable category shows that the primary growth drivers were all vegetables that are known to last in consumers’ pantries and fridge drawers. In fact, while volume sales for fresh vegetables increased by 15.0% in the latest four weeks, it was potatoes, carrots and onions – all vegetables that store well – which contributed the most sales growth to the category.
In a time where health is top-of-mind and home snacking is at an all-time high, it was surprising to see fresh fruit volume sales decline in the month of March. Bananas, apples and stone fruit recorded volume growth; while traditional lunchbox and snackable favorites including berries, avocados and citrus all saw declines compared to a year ago. However, with the government’s recent announcement that Australian schools could recommence in the next few weeks, we may see sales for some of these fruit categories start to recover.
Looking across the store, it is clear that Australians are gravitating toward produce that can last weeks, not days. In the four weeks to March 22, frozen fruit recorded an all-time high for volume growth (+39.3%), while canned fruit sales also jumped by 73.9%. Given that the average price of fruit was 7.9% higher than the same time year ago, budgetary constraints may have influenced stronger frozen and canned fruit sales as well. The same pattern could be seen for vegetables with frozen sales up by 59.8%, while canned vegetables increased by 118.5%.
Over the next few months, retailers and brands could consider finding new ways to inspire consumers to use the fruit and vegetable options they are purchasing. Recipe ideas using longer-lasting vegetables with stockpiled pantry items, or creative ways to use frozen and canned produce could help to drive consumption. Working with smaller outlets to provide home delivery options may also assist in facilitating produce purchases for those who are homebound and unable to make it out to their local store.
When Australia starts living the new normal – trust, safety and place of origin will be important considerations for consumers buying fresh produce. Meanwhile sales of longer-lasting fruits and vegetables may soon start to slow as households eat through their stockpile of purchased goods.
Learnings from China suggest that online shopping for fresh foods will only continue to rise in importance. From a retail perspective, much will need to be done to build the supply chains to meet future omnichannel food demands. The specialisation of small stores to match the surrounding demographics and the expansion of e-commerce and home delivery services will be key areas of transformation in the coming months.