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Opinion: Why selling fresh produce online must evolve

At the onset of the pandemic, grocery e-commerce jumped forward about five years on its natural growth trajectory. It was the full growth trifecta: more people, more trips and greater spending online. Fresh produce partook, but not to the same extent as centre store grocery — a gap that still exists.

People are comfortable buying some items online, but for many items, they want to do the selecting. This argues for better website or app functionality, where consumers can indicate whether they are looking for a glow-in-the-dark green banana or one ready for eating. Or, finding ways to leverage the trust people have in the in-store produce department to the online environment.

We have an opportunity to do a better job at merchandising online, much like we do in store. I’ll give an example. If we think about a typical in-store apple display, many stores have quite a variety of apples, but also signage that shows the apples on the range from tart to sweet. This same sign educates the consumer which apples are good for baking versus good for snacking. Packaging often reinforces these ideas, as well, with texture and taste descriptions.

Now, try buying an apple online. I tried upward of two dozen retailers and struck out each time. All have description and nutrition fields, but, at most, I found a UPC number, or, the very profound “apple” in the description field. I never once found any nutrition information or health benefits/callouts.

It is the online picture and description that have to replace the in-store visual, smell, squeezing and thumping people do while in the produce department. The better the description, the more chance we have to land in the online basket.

In a survey just a few weeks ago, I asked online produce buyers what they want to see when making their selections. And from the list, it is clear we need to step up our game.

What consumers want to see:

72% Clear picture of the product

53% Detailed product description

42% Nutritional information

34% Recipe(s)

32% Cooking suggestions

30% Source (farm, location, etc.) details

27% “Also buy” suggestions

More than seven in 10 want to see a clear picture of the product and more than half want to see a detailed product description, together with 42% wanting nutritional information. All these things are hard to do in-store, where we want the natural beauty of produce to pop out instead of endless signage. But online, it is not only easier, but a must to give people greater confidence to buy produce.

Most growers and brands have beautiful pictures and descriptions readily available. We have to make sure this information makes it into the hands of the marketers behind the website. We have to make sure when a consumer wants to make an apple pie, they can go online and figure out which apple to buy, just like they can in-store. Together, with cooking and “also buy” recipes, this will start to close the gap between the produce items bought in-store only versus those bought online as well.

About one-third of online buyers want to see cooking suggestions or “also buy” suggestions. Consumers are still cooking significantly more than they did prior to the pandemic and many say it’s not the meal preparation that is the hard part, but it is coming up with things to make for breakfast, lunch and dinner, day after day. Today’s technology allows retailers and brands alike to suggest recipes and add all items to the cart with one swift click.

In addition to more nutrition information, descriptions and beautiful pictures, it’s also important we don’t lose the power of new and seasonal that we see in the in-store environment. About half of consumers never look for new items when they shop online. In the summer, most stores lead with regional and seasonal crops. During cherry season, you can’t enter a store without seeing the new crop prominently displayed. But online, 82% of consumers start with their past purchases. How will they know it is cherry season?

E-commerce has also opened the door to a lot more consumer-direct selling in fresh produce and they are taking dollars out of traditional retail. One powerful example is The Peach Truck. While shoppers spend $4.15 on peaches in store, The Peach Truck sells its customers 25 pounds for $50 in one swoop. In the name of research, I was one of them. I had every intention in the world to share my 25 pounds of peaches with friends and family. But The Peach Truck did a tremendous job in giving recipes on making anything from peach cobbler to peaches on the grill to peach popsicles. They also taught me how to freeze peaches or perhaps can them. And at the end of the day, my family of four ate every single one of the 25 pounds of peaches.

There’s a big learning opportunity in this. People will buy bulk if you tell the beautiful story of the family farm peach that is going to taste like the best peach you’ve ever had, and if you provide tips on what to do with it.

We’re also seeing retailers use e-commerce technology to move into areas where they do not have a physical presence.

This all means e-commerce is still a growth opportunity for fresh produce, but also be aware of others leveraging e-commerce to sell to your consumers directly. Delight in-store and replicate this online.

About the Author: Anne-Marie Roerink is the president of 210 Analytics, a San Antonio, TX-based research firm. Working closely with retailers, wholesalers, grower/shippers and trade associations, Roerink understands the challenges and opportunities in the food and produce businesses today, as well as the drivers of success tomorrow. She works in many different areas, uncovering the trends in an ever-changing marketplace.


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