By Rick Stein, Vice President of Fresh, FMI 
Fresh Produce Spread

We all know that the fresh food category is highly important to the food retail industry, and new research from FMI and Deloitte actually quantifies the level of importance during this crucial time.

The research, based on a survey of senior industry leaders, finds most companies rate the fresh category as having the highest strategic importance to their overall revenue growth plans during the next one to three years. That is no doubt at least partly driven by the growth in eating at home during the pandemic.

The research relays how leaders are backing up fresh foods opportunities with new strategic investments. More than 80% of respondents are adding additional floor space, product offerings and/or staff. Key fresh priorities identified include in-store experience, fresh in e-commerce and fresh meal solutions.

Boosting In-Store Experience

Retailers will need to focus on creating an energized shopping experience, and six in 10 of them are investing to make it happen, according to the research findings. Retailers believe these efforts will drive revenue growth—not just in fresh but also across categories.

Top measures for improving the experience include enhancing the responsiveness of store associates, remodeling the physical space, and creating robust in-store themes. However, recruiting and retaining skilled labor is a major challenge to successfully using these tactics and cited by 8 in 10 retailers, the research found.

Enhancing Fresh in E-Commerce

Another priority is building fresh in e-commerce, and the research found that fresh departments already play a big role in how retailers conduct their e-commerce initiatives. Seven in 10 fresh departments report having a seat at the table in making overall e-commerce strategic decisions.

Meanwhile, suppliers have crucial roles to play in supporting these activities, according to the findings. This includes enhancing website photos and offerings and background stories for websites and social media. Suppliers can also contribute by gearing packaging designs more specifically to the online channel.

Driving Fresh Meal Solutions

Meal solutions already have been a priority during the pandemic, and the research pointed to key imperatives.

Among retailer respondents, nine in 10 said fresh meal solutions are an important growth segment. A similar number said they are investing in offering fresh meals—especially grab-and-go meals, build-your-own meals, and self-service salad bars. A critical point is the need to create awareness among consumers around fresh meal solutions.

Making Progress in 2022

This research is further spotlighted in the latest FMI FreshForward Conversation with Barb Renner, Deloitte’s vice chair and U.S. consumer products leader. Deloitte is FMI’s partner in the annual FreshForward conference.

One of the most important points in the research is about the need for industry collaboration to capitalize on the growth opportunities. The report puts it this way:

"Food retailers and product suppliers are likely going to need to depend on each other and work more closely together than ever before in order to fully seize the opportunity."

I couldn't agree more with that assessment. Trading partners will have to rely on each other more than before to overcome unprecedented hurdles in achieving their goals.