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Consumers ‘pleasantly surprised’ buying produce online

CPMA Fresh Week’s retail leadership panel touched on topics such as home delivery, traceability, sustainability, and the importance of pivoting to meet consumer demands

With the rise of online grocery shopping spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic, consumers seem to be much more comfortable with buying fresh items—including produce—online than ever before, according to a panel of retailers speaking at the Retail Leadership Roundtable held during CPMA Fresh Week.

“Because of the circumstances, more people are giving it a try, and we find they're actually very pleasantly surprised with the experience,” said Carmine Carpino, senior procurement manager at Walmart Canada.

“A lot of people … are very particular about produce, so they tended to shy away from [ordering produce online before]; but under the circumstances now, it's opened a new door and we're getting a lot of very positive feedback regarding home delivery. I think once the dust settles and the pandemic is behind us, we’re going to see this trend continue to grow, regardless of the circumstance around us, and it's something we need to prepare for.”

Carpino was joined at the roundtable by Zack Jones, general manager, produce at Save-On-Foods; and Marco Chita, associate vice-president, category management at Giant Tiger. The panel was moderated by Ron Lemaire, president of the Canadian Produce Marketing Association (CPMA).

The panelists also discussed various consumer trends as they pertain to produce, and how predicting those trends has become somewhat more challenging for retailers amid the pandemic.

“I would say it's definitely been a bit more challenging … but I think you have to be nimble and be able to pivot and adapt,” said Giant Tiger’s Chita. “And I think in general, when I look at the retailer landscape, most—if not all—retailers have adapted fairly well. It really starts with listening to the consumer. That's the most important thing: you see what the consumer is doing and pivot towards that.”

Chita noted that a couple of trends in particular have stood out recently: “From some of the data points we've seen, more than half of consumers have indicated that ethical sourcing and food safety are probably two of the biggest areas [of concern] ... when they're making food purchasing decisions,” he said. “And I would recommend vendors to be focusing on these two areas, especially when they're looking at their strategies and how to execute, because I think that that's really where the future is going.”

Save-On-Foods’ Jones echoed those thoughts, adding that “product offerings that put an emphasis on traceability” are a key demand and will continue to be going forward. “Consumers today are more educated than they've ever been, and they want to understand how their products are growing, what was used to grow them, and exactly where they came from.”

Jones added that health and wellness and sustainability are also key trends right now. “Plastic is a big topic in the conversation today,” he said. “How are the products packaged? Are they done in a sustainable way? A recyclable way? I think products that focus on sustainable packaging are going to be successful well into the future.”

When the conversation shifted to supply chain issues during the pandemic, Carpino pointed out that produce departments are already used to dealing with challenges like this than some other areas of the store, so pivoting and adapting in this regard wasn’t exactly something new to them.

“Being in produce as long as we have, that's just the nature of the beast in our world. If it's not a pandemic, it's something else that's going to happen,” he said. “We have become so nimble and so dynamic and so quick to make decisions that it's just really second nature to us ... we're used to dealing with weather patterns and those kinds of things. That's just what we do.”

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