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The King of Canned Vegetables

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Sep 23, 2021

What is the king of canned vegetables on the Instacart marketplace? When consumers are buying their groceries online at one of their favorite grocery retailers through the Instacart marketplace, 1 in 5 buy at least one canned vegetable. But consumers show a significant preference for one type of vegetable when adding canned vegetables to their cart — so much so it accounts for over 40% of the sales of the top ten canned vegetables sales, selling roughly 20x the amount of the 10th most-sold canned vegetable and over 2.5x of the 2nd-most.

Some of us on the Instacart Ads team took a few guesses at what canned vegetable was selling so above and beyond others in its segment — corn, peas, and green beans were mentioned. Nope, nope, and nope to those guesses.

The far-and-away top seller in canned vegetables on the Instacart marketplace? Tomatoes. Chopped, diced, pureed, crushed, or whole consumers are buying lots of canned tomatoes when they place their order on Instacart.

pie chart of canned vegetable sales with tomatoes at 40%

And with good reason! Canned tomatoes make the perfect base for many types of pasta sauces — al pomodoro, bolognese, alla vodka, and puttanesca for starters — plus of course many pots of our favorite chillies start with canned tomatoes and chili peppers.

Some of us then complained that this was a trick question, protesting (rightly!) that tomatoes are a fruit. The tomato plant flowers, those flowers turn into tomatoes, tomatoes have seeds, all the hallmarks of a fruit! And botanically speaking, it is a fruit. 

But the tomato splits the fruit / vegetable divide based on context. Quoting straight from Wikipedia — “the tomato is considered a “culinary vegetable” because it has a much lower sugar content than culinary fruits; it is typically served as part of a salad or main course of a meal, rather than as a dessert.”

So is it all about canned tomatoes? Not necessarily. There’s a seasonality with a large spike in weekly sales of canned vegetables around Thanksgiving—  

chart showing canned vegetable sales with a large peak at Thanksgiving

With canned tomatoes taking up such a large proportion of the canned vegetable sales as consumers order from their favorite retailers through the Instacart marketplace, does this spike in weekly sales mean people are also ordering more canned tomatoes for Thanksgiving? 

Most of us picturing a traditional Thanksgiving meal don’t envision canned tomatoes on our plates. So we decided to drill-down deeper into the data and see what was accounting for the rise in weekly sales. 

What we found was actually a dip in canned tomato weekly sales and a noticeable rise in green beans and corn weekly sales — broadly aligning with what most of us think of when it comes to Thanksgiving dinner. 

chart of canned vegetable sales showing tomatoes drop at thanksgiving

So if these insights suggest canned tomatoes are not being used for Thanksgiving dinner, what can we learn about why they are being purchased? To get a better understanding of the kinds of meals all these canned tomatoes are used for we dug into the basket affinities. 

This type of analysis helps us see what’s most likely to be in the same basket as our subject. In this case, canned tomatoes. We’ve covered basket affinities in a previous article. In the case of canned tomatoes, the basket affinities shared a common theme— 

basket affinities for canned tomatoes largely beans and chili ingredients

While chili sauce had the highest basket affinity, the list was dominated by beans, beans, and more beans. Taken together, this seems to suggest there is a lot of homemade chili being made by consumers buying their groceries at their favorite retailers through the Instacart marketplace. 

Other items likely contributing to chilis or stews show up in the basket affinities for canned tomatoes as well — like broth, stock, corn, and corn chips for on the side. Some of us on the Instacart Ads team were surprised no pasta made it in the top basket affinities, with only ricotta at the very bottom of the list hinting at Italian cuisine— a must have for baked cannelloni!

When we look at canned tomato sales by geographic region, we see that chopped/diced sales are dominated by the south. 

chopped tomato sales by region

But pureed/crushed tomato sales were the highest in the Northeast, slightly ahead of the South. 

pureed tomato sales by region

So there we have it — the king of canned vegetables, the versatile tomato. Making up 40% of canned vegetable sales through the Instacart marketplace, likely bought with beans, and popular year-round except for a big dip around Thanksgiving.

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