As the US moves out of the pandemic, PCC Community Markets, the nation’s largest community-owned food market, has observed changes in consumer behavior in its produce department.
“Organic sales continue to rise, but the dynamics have changed slightly,” said Kevin Byers, senior produce merchandiser for the 16-store Seattle-area certified organic grocer. “Coming out of the pandemic, we are seeing a return to pre-pandemic shopping patterns with more trips per week. We are also seeing customers shop around and eat out of the home more than during the pandemic.”
Kevin Byers, Senior Produce Merchandiser, PCC Community Markets
Byers said pre-pandemic and early-stage pandemic trends around organic cauliflower and celery have cooled. Instead, he said PCC has seen a rise in popularity of fresh cut fruit and veg offerings as well as bananas, which he attributes “to people being back on the go and in the office.”
Over the last year, Byers said weather and other factors have dramatically impacted produce supply and availability.
“Crop timing and volume in 2022 were vastly different than in years past," he said. "We started the year with a tough citrus crop; then summer brought one of the latest stone fruit seasons we have seen; and the trend continues now with our fall apple crop being challenged and winter veg being short in supply and expensive. These seasonal ebbs and flows are something we have grown used to in the industry—but this year brought it to the attention of the customer.”
“Organic sales continue to rise, but the dynamics have changed slightly.” - Kevin Byers
When it comes to the current inflationary environment, Byers acknowledged that it’s had a noticeable impact on consumer behavior. “Inflation is a challenge,” he said. “The industry is seeing unprecedented pricing, customers' dollars are being pinched, and they are making hard decisions. There is a shift toward more thoughtful shopping. Customers want to make sure they are getting the most out of their shopping trip, and PCC is working to support this in many ways.”
Byers noted that in response to inflation, PCC has expanded its promotional program of weekly ads, daily deals, and promotional mailers and emails.
“We have done many things to expand our promo program,” he said. “We have tried to increase the number of items within our traditional [1-week and a 2-week] ad cycle when possible. We have also implemented a 2–3-day ‘Deal of the Day’ promotion, where we put an aggressive price on an individual item or a whole category. We have done line drives, taking a percentage off a whole category, like apples, for instance, during the peak of the season. We have increased our member-only offers that we give to our co-op membership, and we have increased our direct mail offerings to our non-member customers.”
Byers said the consumer response to the increase in promotions has been “overwhelmingly great,” noting that “produce drives business for PCC. When we highlight produce within our promotional program, we see exceptional engagement. The sales and basket lift we see extends past the produce department. It helps drive sales and units throughout the store.”
“The industry is seeing unprecedented pricing, customers' dollars are being pinched, and they are making hard decisions. There is a shift toward more thoughtful shopping. Customers want to make sure they are getting the most out of their shopping trip, and PCC is working to support this in many ways.” - Kevin Byers
“From a merchandising perspective, we are returning to tried-and-true tactics of large, impactful displays without a massive amount of product on the sales floor,” Byers said. “With the cost of goods today, PCC is keeping appropriate inventory levels, just like our shoppers. This allows us to continue to offer high-quality products and fair prices.”
To stock its produce department—which is “95 percent organic, 100 percent of the time”—PCC works with wholesalers Organically Grown Company, Pacific Coast Fruit, and Peterson Fruit. It also purchases produce directly from approximately 20 local growers.
For PCC, prioritizing organic produce is a no-brainer. “We choose organic because people, animals, and waterways ought to be protected in every way possible,” said Byers. “Specifically for fresh produce, research shows that organic growing methods are gentler on the environment and that organic produce is lower in toxic pesticides and can contain higher levels of nutrients. Organic farms also offer safer working conditions for farm families, workers, and surrounding communities.”
Over the past few years, PCC has added some new organic growers to its roster—Four Elements Farm, First Cut Farm, Hima Farms, Diamondback Acres, Hop Frog Farms, and Little Eorthe Farm. “These growers are on the smaller side and relatively new to the wholesale market,” said Byers. “We start by focusing on a few specific items that we are not getting from any of our current growers and committing to a delivery cadence that works for all parties. The last few years these items have included baby bok choy, purple kohlrabi, specialty grapes, and heirloom apples.”
“We choose organic because people, animals, and waterways ought to be protected in every way possible.” - Kevin Byers
The PCC produce department is intimately involved in crop planning with the growers it sources from directly. “We meet with all of them before and after each season to discuss what worked, what didn’t work, what products the co-op needs more of, and what products were tough for us to move,” said Byers. “Then as we get closer to harvest, PCC is placing orders, weekly or twice weekly, with each grower, so they know what quantities we need, while also communicating with wholesale partners, so they can plan accordingly.”
For more than three decades, PCC has been dedicated to supporting local hunger relief organizations in the Puget Sound region.
“Through our grocery rescue program, thousands of pounds of high-quality food—including organic, local produce—are donated directly from our stores,” Byers said. “The goal of our grocery rescue program is not only to prevent edible food from being wasted but also to support our local food banks financially and logistically in a socially and culturally responsible way. We also partner with Organically Grown Company (OGC) on a Farm-to-School bagged apple program. OGC sources and brands a 3-lb bag of apples that we then sell and donate 100 percent of the profits to local organizations that have educational components around agriculture.”
Byers, who has been working in the PCC produce department for the last 16 years, said that what he enjoys most about the job is “the people and the product. Being the conduit between the growers of the food and the eaters of it is so rewarding. Seeing everything that goes into growing amazing product and then to see the joy in the face of the one eating it is so cool.”