Will e-grocers learn to keep produce fresh?

Photo: Getty Images/vgajic
Dec 19, 2019
Matthew Stern

Fresh fruit and vegetables are not easy to ship, and that poses unique last-mile challenges that can be pricey to address. According to a new study, however, e-commerce customers are ordering fresh produce nonetheless.

Forty-one percent of online grocery shoppers say that they include fresh produce in their orders, according to the U.S. Online Grocery Shopper Study conducted by Retail Feedback Group. Quality and freshness, however, remain issues. Produce was cited by online shoppers as the one department where products most frequently had problems. 

Fresh produce logistics are particularly complicated because of unique issues like short shelf life and seasonality, which impact shipping not just at the last mile but from the outset, as described by an article on Freight Waves. If vendors source the kind of locally grown produce from small farms that today’s customers are looking for, they face yet another set of challenges as small shipment sizes make profitability a more complex task.

The need for temperature control to maintain freshness and the ease with which product can be damaged adds more complication to the last mile of delivery. This is especially true in situations in which third parties are used to deliver — and even to pick and pack — fresh produce.

Not only is it difficult for individual retailers that leverage third party delivery services to enforce quality control on delicate perishables, contract worker satisfaction at services like Instacart is diminishing, which could impact the employees’ willingness to take care with the merchandise.

Some major initiatives in fresh food e-commerce have proven less successful than hoped. Walmart-owned Jet.com’s pilot of a fresh food delivery service inside New York City was shuttered after only a year. And even with Whole Foods behind it as a possible point from which to fulfill fresh food orders, Amazon Fresh has had to scale back services. 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What do you see on the horizon to help e-grocers overcome hurdles in providing fresh produce and meeting growing customer demand? Is technology or worker execution the bigger hurdle?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"Fresh produce will remain the Achilles heel of e-grocery for reasons of freshness — but also far more."
"Will the pickers, the gas, the packaging, the refrigerated trucks driving the countryside tip an environmental scale? Possibly some things can not be digitized?"
"...satisfying people’s idea of what “good” produce ought to look and taste like — that’s a real challenge."

Join the Discussion!

13 Comments on "Will e-grocers learn to keep produce fresh?"

Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Richard Hernandez

Regardless of the processes that are developed, the biggest thorn here as a shopper is being able to pick the produce that I want. And as a consumer I also know I don’t want to buy four heads of lettuce that are packaged together – I want one nice one that I pick myself. Seeing and picking freshness is so subjective. I find that a more difficult task than making sure it doesn’t go bad before it gets to me.

Casey Golden
1 month 7 days ago

I agree, I am particular about my produce. If there is a dent – I am not happy. Fresh Direct does a great job and I have only been disappointed once. However, it was several orders before I added fresh produce to my order because I thought it would be poor quality on arrival.

Neil Saunders

Fresh has always been an issue in grocery delivery, for two main reasons. First, produce is delicate and can easily be damaged in the fulfillment process. Second, everyone has different requirements when it comes to fresh: preferences vary on issues like ripeness, color, shape, and so forth.

The fulfillment issues can be managed through quality control and proper packing. On the customer preferences part, I have seen some retailers allow customers to specify their preferences on things like ripeness and so forth. That helps ensure those picking the products meet customer requirements.

Ben Ball

Short answer: Emulate Harry & David’s. We receive their pears at Christmas every year and they are always perfect.

Gene Detroyer

H&D’s pears are the perfect example of the challenge of fresh produce. We too receive H&D’s pears every year. We try one, as every year, it is awful. The other five pears go right in the garbage. The chocolates and popcorn are great, however.

Give me your address and I will sent them to you next year.

Suresh Chaganti

For grocery delivery to be sustainable for the retailer, they need to get a few things right. It is not just a convenience play, but quality, hard-to-get produce, direct from farms, ethically sourced, etc. It should be much like other categories, where early adopters pay a premium before it crosses the chasm and appeals to the majority.

Customer segmentation and creating personas to identify those early adopters, has to be very deep and extremely well researched.

Doug Garnett

Fresh produce will remain the Achilles heel of e-grocery for reasons of freshness — but also far more.

I do not trust a grocer to pick the produce I want. I don’t just want “any” apple — I want to pick my own. Or potatoes or a romaine lettuce bag or… We all know “still OK within this date” doesn’t mean “it’s good produce.”

This means e-grocery won’t ever grow very far beyond where it is now — appealing to a niche which has a higher need than others for the delivery. People with time, energy, and the health to shop a store will continue to prefer to make their own choices.

Paula Rosenblum

I am a grocery home delivery person. And they have more or less problems, depending on the vendor.

  • Amazon keeps items fresh with insane amounts of dry ice and other insulated bags. I suspect they have air conditioned vans as well (there are a ton of them in Miami).
  • Instacart delivers from relatively nearby stores, so the drive distance is not that far.

As far as shoppers’ ability to “pick good stuff” my experience is that Instacart has gotten better, not worse – especially since the shopper now gets to rate the shopping experience separate from the delivery experience. I suspect that was the root of dissatisfaction among Instacart workers. There was only one rating for two people.

So if the stuff is warm I ding the deliverer, if it’s poor quality I ding the shopper.

I have been observing these issues for a while. Picking produce and delivering cold items is very challenging for these guys. The stores should really help them out. That would be a good thing.

Ralph Jacobson

This is just one more logistical element that must be overcome. True e-grocery shopping (as opposed to BOPIS) is still only a tiny fraction of the retail food business because of this, I believe, primarily. A lot of this has to do with urban vs. suburban vs. rural deliveries. Of course, urban deliveries can be accomplished successfully at a greater rate than in less densely-populated areas. There may need to be more investment in trucks to expand this beyond the most densely-populated areas, as a start.

Michael Terpkosh

We all agree that consumers want really fresh, really good produce (and meats) from their e-grocer and their brick-and-mortar retailer. However, I wonder if there is some consumer bias to be more critical of e-grocer fresh products vs. in-store fresh products. I am not sure if anyone in the business has tried to conduct a study with consumers to determine whether consumers are fair and unbiased in their fresh quality judgements between the two channels. We have all shopped in retailers with great fresh produce and had to decide on a given day, with given product, which broccoli “looks best” to buy. I agree e-grocers need to continue to improve their fresh offerings, but maybe consumers are also too critical.

Ryan Mathews
Another part of the problem is that people really don’t know what they want because nobody ever showed them how to pick produce. When I was a kid on the Eastside of Detroit we had huge — and I mean huge — Italian greengrocers and even some 100-year-old guys still driving produce trucks around the neighborhood. Why? There were lots of Sicilians where I lived and they were VERY particular about their produce. Now, flash forward in time to my foodie hipster supermarket where the gourmand chic gather to pick the yellowest bunch of bananas they can, thinking they’ll last a week. So if customers aren’t confident in their selection, they are bound to be disappointed. There is a counterpoint here though. Years ago I remember doing a story on Peapod which involved watching people pick orders. I assumed produce would be the issue, and it turned out exactly the opposite is true — customers liked the fact that they could say I want one banana I can eat today, two I can eat tomorrow,… Read more »
Cynthia Holcomb

Just because most everything we do has become digitized, thankfully some aspects of the physical world will keep all of us rooted in the “human” experience. What will be the cure to deliver fresh produce? Will the pickers, the gas, the packaging, the refrigerated trucks driving the countryside tip an environmental scale? Possibly some things can not be digitized? Or alternatively, generations to come will never have had the experience of fresh produce.

Craig Sundstrom

Is “nothing” an acceptable answer? The issue, clearly, is related to time — time in processing the order, time in filling it, time in delivery — and while I could see the first improving with technology (or practice), I’m not hopeful on the latter two. The high labor cost inherent in selecting produce is an all-too-clear example of why online grocery struggles to be profitable, and while delivery can always be speeded by having more drivers/deliveries, that also drives up the cost. Drones? Robots? Keep asking Santa, I think they’re years away at best.

"Fresh produce will remain the Achilles heel of e-grocery for reasons of freshness — but also far more."
"Will the pickers, the gas, the packaging, the refrigerated trucks driving the countryside tip an environmental scale? Possibly some things can not be digitized?"
"...satisfying people’s idea of what “good” produce ought to look and taste like — that’s a real challenge."

Take Our Instant Poll

To what degree will e-grocers improve their ability to deliver produce in 2020?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...