While tomato sales dropped sharply, the 2012 report card on retail fresh produce performance showed big gains for berries, apples, grapes and value-added fruit compared with 2011.

Berries show big growth in 2012Steve Lutz, executive vice president of the Nielsen Perishables Group, said that 52-week sales data through Dec. 29 of 2012 showed overall produce sales for the year were up 4.4% compared with 2011. Volume of fresh produce sold rose 3.4%, Nielsen figures showed, with the average price for all produce items rising an average of 1%.

Nielsen statistics show that the top 10 produce categories — berries, packaged salad, apples, bananas, grapes, potatoes, tomatoes, citrus, value-added fruit and cooking vegetables — account for about 57% of produce sales in the U.S.

Nine of those 10 categories showed volume growth in 2012, Lutz said.

Potatoes were the only category with a volume decline and one of three categories, with tomatoes and cooking vegetables, with year-over-year declines in overall sales compared with 2011.

Tomato sales for 2012 were off 7.2%, pulled lower by a 8.9% drop in average prices despite a 2% increase in volume.

Meanwhile, potato sales slipped 4%, with volume off 0.4% despite a 3.6% drop in average potato prices.

“Some of these categories get in kind of a rut and consumers don’t respond to the price cues,” Lutz said.

Fruits, typically eaten as snacks, are usually more responsive to changes in price than are vegetables, Lutz said.

Top performers

Berries topped volume growth in 2012, recording 10.5% gain in volume and a 2.1% increase in average prices helping contribute to a 12.8% rise in sales.

Berries continue to steal the spotlight for the fresh produce department with their strong performance, Lutz said. Among the top 20 produce categories, berries were second in the number of new items added within the category in 2012, according to Nielsen data.

“What that suggests is that you are getting more package types at retail to appeal to smaller consumer segments,” he said. Consumers now have more choices in berry package sizes, whether that would be 4-ounce, 6-ounce, 8-ounce or bigger packs.

“That impression growth is typically associated with space allocation, so you are getting a category that is getting a larger footprint at retail,” Lutz said.

Another strong performer in 2012 was apples, he said. Even with a 7.3% increase in average prices, Lutz said apple volume was able to increase 2.2%. Overall apple sales for the year rose 9.7%, Nielsen figures showed. Even in the fourth quarter of 2012, despite short crops in Michigan and New York, overall apple volume rose 1.2%, he said.

“That’s a pretty good story for apples, to be able to come through a year where we knew there was going to be a shorter crop in the U.S.” he said.

Lutz said the consumer demand for all the fresh departments in the supermarket is being largely driven by trends toward of health-oriented products, convenience-oriented products, global items and premium indulgent items. “Part of what you are seeing is a greater than average increase in health-oriented products in fresh foods, including fresh produce,” Lutz said.

He cited strong-performing examples in the produce department, including select varieties of grape tomatoes and apples, as evidence of the appeal of premium and convenience items.

In that vein, the Nielsen numbers showed an 11.8% rise in value-added fruit sales in 2012, with volume rising 4.7% and average prices up by 6.8%

Looking ahead to the rest of 2013, Lutz said fresh produce marketers should be optimistic.

“The economy is improving, consumers value our products and there is all sorts of messages in the press about health and why produce is important to diet,” he said.

Consumer expectations for taste, quality and convenience are being met with new varieties and packages, Lutz said.

“If you look across produce, there is a lot of innovation going on within the category and suppliers continue to work hard to continue to get products consumers want to pay for,” he said.