Seattle has been hit harder than many other cities by the economic bug, but the market for fresh produce seems to be maintaining pace, if not growing.


In Washington state, the May unemployment rate stood at 9.4%, but it is slightly better in Seattle.


“Unemployment has been in the eights in Seattle,” said Karin Gardner, communications manager at Vancouver, British Columbia-based The Oppenheimer Group, an international firm that sells into the Seattle market.


“Luckily, produce has been pretty robust,” Gardner said.


The economy has caused a spike in use of food stamps, said Ed Peters, produce buyer at single-store retailer Dan’s Belltown Grocery, near downtown Seattle.


“You still see some food abuse with them buying Twinkies and pop, but we’ve seen a spike in food stamps used for all grocery sales, including produce,” Peters said.


The first half of the year saw cautious, deliberate shoppers that were more concerned with value, said Joe Hardiman, produce merchandiser at PCC Natural Markets, a Seattle chain with nine stores.


“The overall confidence is starting to come around a little bit, and that’s reflected on Wall Street. When there’s confidence in the nation, there’s more confidence in shopping,” Hardiman said.


PCC Natural Markets is trying to attract consumers with creative marketing and merchandising. Beginning in June, the chain introduced a coupon book. For instance, a coupon offered 10% off the entire produce purchase.


“We’re trying to ignite the deeper shopper to come back and buy produce like they always have,” Hardiman said.


So far, the effort has resulted in an uptick in dollars, volume and customer count, he said.


Unified Grocers, a major Seattle-area buyer based in Commerce, Calif., that sells to independent retail chains, is working to maintain the business built up by Associated Grocers, which it bought in 2007, said Lon Hudson, organics sales specialist in the Selah, Wash., office of Raleigh, N.C.-based L&M Cos. Inc.


“The wholesalers are fighting harder for what business remains for them, with the large retailers trying to buy direct,” Hudson said.


Hudson said he has seen a trend of the region’s various retail co-ops using a local-first marketing angle.


“They want to know about the farms individually … the history of the people and the product,” he said.


With the slack economy, consumers in Seattle — and the Pacific Northwest in general — are still buying premium greenhouse produce, but they are buying smaller quantities, more frequently, said Aaron Quon, greenhouse category manager for Oppenheimer.


“We find that consumers don’t want to experience any waste at home,” Quon said. “Also, specialty produce demand has declined.”


Growers are decreasing their acreage for specialties, as a result of the economic times, he said, adding that the pattern will continue as growers focus on their core items.