Ripe for Transformation: the Future of the Supermarket Produce Department

I’ve shopped the produce department of more than fifty different supermarket chains during my grocery career and have reached the same conclusion as journalist Liz Webber: “the thing about produce departments is, they kind of all look the same.”

Photo © Kelvinchuah |

The reality is that most supermarkets have a common look and feel in the produce department, from orderly pyramids of cosmetically perfect apples on waterfall angled tables to perfect columns of colorful bagged salads in upright refrigerated cases.

Before you say I am generalizing too much, I do appreciate the notable exceptions like H.E.B.’s Central Market with its towering maze of basketball size cauliflower and softball size peaches and banquet of fresh cut fruit and vegetables. But I am talking about the vast majority of supermarkets not the exceptions.

Customers shop produce differently

The average produce customer is getting a commoditized experience of assortment, presentation and service. But in my judgment the data shows that customers are looking for a differentiated experience in produce.

Phil Lempert’s “Race to the Top” survey found that while customers will shop the rest of the store based on price as the top factor (i.e. a commoditizedexperience), they shop produce using a totally different strategy. Produce is shopped based on quality. Across a wide range of industries, quality drivesdifferentiation of customer experience.

Customer preferences are shifting

As buying power shifts from Baby Boomer to Generation X to Millennial, customers are becoming more concerned about supply chain sustainability and eating experience in their purchasing decisions. We have already seen these this in the growth of organic and locally grown categories. Projecting these trends into the future results in a much different vision of the produce department.

Today’s supply chains were optimized to deliver uniform assortments that minimize the effects of seasonality by shipping across both hemispheres, and minimize the effects of long transportation by selecting for durability and using advanced packaging.

But customers are becoming more conscious of food waste, and view packaging as a wasteful to the environment and cosmetic perfection as more wasteful and less important than flavor. And they are becoming more concerned with the potential environmental impact of transporting across continents by airplane, ship and truck.

Customers want more locally grown produce as they seek smaller carbon footprint, higher community engagement, more freshness and richer flavor. In pursuit of richer flavor, customers are more willing to try a more diverse assortment of fruits and vegetables and they want it to be super fresh.

The future of produce

More locally grown means more seasonal variation and nonuniform assortment. Reducing food waste means more cosmetic imperfection, less packaging, and less “abundant” but faster turning displays. Focusing on flavor means more sampling, and more educating customers about combinations and preparations that optimize flavor. The produce clerk becomes more of a knowledge worker who is curating the produce experience. And the produce department of the future starts to look a lot different.

My intent is to be thought-provoking and idea-generating. Whether you share these visions and are trying to pursue them, or you have a completely opposite view, let’s keep the conversation going at or @mikefenocketti.