While many consumers may not know that May is National Salad Month in the U.S., most are well aware of an E. coli outbreak that sparked a multistate recall of romaine lettuce grown in Yuma, Ariz. While the growing season in Yuma is now at its end and the affected lettuce is now past its 21-day shelf life, packaged salad sales took a hit in April despite significant category growth over the past few years.
“With consumers’ increased focus on health and wellness, packaged salad sales have been a big growth story in recent years,” says Sarah Schmansky, vice president of Nielsen’s Growth and Strategy team. “It’s a category that continues to reinvent and reinvigorate itself. If you think about it, packaged salads were really the first convenience category in the produce section.”
They’re also incredibly popular, boasting a 77% penetration rate across the country, which is four percentage points higher than fresh lettuce.
Despite this recent growth, we’ve seen what previous recalls can do on overall category performance (who can forget the impact on spinach and cantaloupe). And in looking at sales performance in April, there’s no mistaking the immediate impact that this recall had on a range of salad items across the store.
During the week of April 14 (the week the news broke), romaine dollar sales fell 20%, which pushed total lettuce performance down by double digits: iceberg lettuce dollar sales were down 19%; red leaf lettuce dollar sales fell 16%; and endive dollar sales dipped 17%.
Sales continued to feel the pinch into the following week, and the effects started to migrate into prepared foods as well. Prepared salad dollar and unit sales were down almost 6% and 10%, respectively; and prepared lettuce salad dollar and unit sales fell 16% and 17%, respectively.
But consumers aren’t avoiding all things green. Spinach sales grew 8% (dollars and volume) in the four weeks ended April 21, 2018, while value-added lettuce (includes items like shredded lettuce, chopped lettuce, wedge iceberg lettuce) saw a 13% spike in dollar sales and 20% jump in volume sales. It’s also worth noting (as illustrated in the chart above) that packaged organic items have fared far better than non-organic items during the recall period.
As recent news highlights, transparency and openness is paramount when it comes to grocery items. Informing consumers frequently and clearly will build trust and relationships that will outlive occasional issues involving product recalls. When products are recalled, let consumers know that potentially affected products have been removed from all areas of the store (e.g., the salad bar as well as the produce area in cases where fresh produce is affected).
It’s also important that store employees stay informed about any product-related health concerns so they can sufficiently inform concerned shoppers. The more prepared a store is, the more trusting the consumer will be—and that will get them back to buying muck quicker and with confidence