Spurred by a 5.4% increase in average retail prices, average fresh produce department sales in the quarter ending May 29 gained 4.2% on a 1.1% decline in volume.

Given the price devaluations experienced in 2009, an increase in fresh produce prices from March-May period isn’t totally unexpected, said Steve Lutz, executive vice president of the Perishables Group, West Dundee, Ill.

Still, with the still sluggish economy, the rate of produce inflation is somewhat surprising, Lutz said.

One commodity with an especially strong performance was onions, which registered a 33% gain in sales on a 33.6% increase in average price and a slight 0.3% decline in volume.

“There is an inelasticity of demand in onions I wouldn’t expect to see,” Lutz said.

Lutz said berries continued their consistently strong performance, gaining 7.6% in total sales on an 8.5% gain in volume and a 1.2% decline in average retail prices.

“The berry category has continued to go strong with volume gains for the last year and a half,” Lutz said.

Packaged salad sales continued to show some softness in the 13-week period ending May 29, with total dollars rated 1.4% down on a 0.5% gain in volume and average retail prices that were down 2% from the same period last year.

Head lettuce continued to show gains in the recession economy, with total dollars up 4.2% thanks to a 1% gain in average retail prices and a 3.1% boost in volume.

The earthquake in Chile likely contributed to a 21% decline in grape volume for the quarter. Grape sales were off 4.2%, while average prices were 21.9%, he said.

The sliced-apple category tallied an 18.1% gain in sales based on a 26.9% increase in volume and a 7% decline in average retail prices.

Top gains in produce sales, according to the Perishables Group, were:

  • Onions, up 33.2%
  • Peppers, up 20.5%
  • Fresh-cut apples, up 18.1%
  • Citrus, up 17.1%
  • Tomatoes, up 12.6%
  • Avocados, up 10.9%