June, 2010

Research Perspective and Comments & Analysis

‘Local’ Finds A Following

What is the value of locally grown fruits and vegetables? Do consumers view these products differently than the more traditional items they might purchase from a supermarket produce department? Is consumer demand and preference for “local” products changing?

From a benchmarking perspective, these are difficult questions to quantify. Very often, locally grown products move through farmer’s markets where there are no scanners, making solid volume tracking quite difficult. In addition, many of the locally grown products selling in conventional supermarkets share identical PLU numbers with the similar conventional items shipped in from out-of-state. So, it can be challenging to measure sales trends in local products. But we can assess consumer attitudes toward local produce to determine what shoppers say is important to them.

Our most recent national study of consumer purchase patterns was completed in December, 2009. While the research primarily dealt with how consumer purchase behavior may have changed due to the recession, we also inquired about specific shopper preferences, including locally grown produce. The survey covered 1,000 consumers nationally who identified themselves as the primary food shopper for their household.

We found that 29 percent of consumers surveyed indicated that they are now purchasing more locally grown produce than in the past (Figure A). About 6 percent of consumers indicated they are purchasing less and only 11 percent of consumers say they do not purchase locally grown produce at all. Compare those answers with purchase patterns for organics: 12 percent of consumers said they are buying more organic produce while 13 percent of consumers said they are buying less. A whopping 36 percent of consumers say they don’t purchase organics at all.

Of course, these are self-reported consumer assessments. The answers are not linked to purchase frequency or volume, so we do not necessarily know how these preferences relate to total volume. Nonetheless, this data speak volumes about how consumer opinions are tilting to favor locally grown products and may even be eclipsing organics at the top of the preference pyramid.

In another question, we asked consumers to tell us if they had any food safety concerns about a variety of products from packaged produce, convenience items, local produce, organic items, etc. (Figure B). It is revealing that with regard to food safety, local produce ranked No. 1 with consumers. Fifty-six percent of consumers indicated they were comfortable with the safety of locally grown produce compared to only 44 percent for bulk produce, 34 percent for organic produce and 20 percent for imported produce.

Finally, we asked consumers about their shopping habits, including the locations where they are shopping compared to last year (Figure C). Superstores were the big winners with 28 percent of consumers saying they are shopping more often in these outlets. However, farmer’s markets were second with 21 percent of consumers saying they are shopping these destinations more frequently. Nearly a third of consumers — 32 percent — said they don’t shop farmer’s markets at all, but it remains significant that consumers solidly indicate that local produce outlets are receiving more shopping trips than in the past.

In numerous recent consumer research studies and focus groups, we’ve observed that locally grown produce has emerged with significant, new influence over the purchases of a growing number of consumers. In some ways, locally grown has become the gold standard for these shoppers — even bypassing organics — as the benchmark for evaluating produce purchases.

Locally Grown Is A Political Concept

Getting questions answered related to the topic of locally grown is important. Yet getting feedback on consumer attitudes toward locally grown is just one step; it still leaves open the question of what consumers are talking about when they say locally grown.

Wal-Mart defines locally grown as grown within the state of the store where the product is being sold. Whole Foods defines it as within 700 miles of its distribution center. We’ve seen dozens of studies over the last quarter century and, pretty much, they have all come down the same way: There is loyalty to product grown in the state where people live — and very little loyalty for the state next door.

This notion of locally grown as a political concept was further reinforced by a focus group series we conducted in the South of England, close to the English Channel. The British, very up on these things, waxed poetic in favor of locally grown — they pointed to the “carbon footprint” and the need to reduce “food miles” and were fierce advocates for the locally grown concept.

Then we asked these British consumers if they would like to see a lot of produce from the north of France — perhaps 20 miles away across the channel — come to their town? The Brits rose in unison to declare that was not at all what they wanted. It turned out they would much prefer produce from the hinterlands of Scotland, 800 miles away, than any nearby French produce. To the British consumer, locally grown was essentially a nationalistic concept: Locally grown meant British-grown.

We suspect that Americans are not all that different. They value their state’s produce, a political affiliation, and they value American produce, another political affiliation. But the evidence that consumers in, say, Denver value produce from, say, Idaho, over, say, Oregon, because it is geographically closer — well, the evidence for that is pretty much non-existent.

The research The Perishables Group did regarding consumer perceptions on food safety and locally grown is intriguing and speaks to another issue. If consumers prefer locally grown produce for reasons of nationalism or political 'boosterism,' that is very difficult to overcome and indicates that retailers would be smart to sell in-state and domestic product when they can. If consumers prefer locally grown for reasons, such as food safety, then they can possibly be educated if those reasons aren’t based on science. American consumers in focus groups give very specific reasons why they prefer locally grown: They say it is less expensive because they save on trucking; they say it tastes better because it is picked riper; they say it is safer because farmers don’t have to use preservatives.

These statements may be true or may be false, but clearly they are subject to debate and persuasion. Taste tests can be done, price comparisons can be given, facts about chemical usage explained. It seems to open a path for national shippers to state their case.

We have found in focus groups that consumers are actually quite skeptical of new ventures when it comes to produce. Local is sometimes a word used in a nostalgic tint as another way of explaining that they want things to be “right.” When we asked consumers if they were enthused about the idea of a new project to grow local cranberries, most thought the concept a terrible idea as the “right” place to grow cranberries, in their minds, was under the spray of the ocean up in Cape Cod, MA. In this sense, the trade’s biggest issue may not be marketing local, but marketing the places where produce is grown as the “right” or “authentic” place to grow these products. The California Avocado Commission, with its “Hand Grown in California” campaign, relies on actual California avocado growers expressing their relationship to the farm and the land… this seems on the road to identifying California avocados as an authentically produced locally grown item.

Reported changes in consumer behavior, even if true, can only be judged in the context of a changing environment. If consumers say they are shopping at farmer’s markets more frequently, that may tell us a lot about public support for opening new farmer’s markets. According to USDA, in 2008, there were 4,685 farmer’s markets in the United States; in 2009, 5,274 — about a 13 percent increase in just one year. What is more, many of the newer farmer’s markets are being opened in urban areas. So although the response that people are shopping more frequently at farmer’s markets may be a heads-up to the industry that there is a stronger competitor around, this may reflect convenience and accessibility to these venues, not any change in attitude toward produce.

The Perishables Group clearly is onto something when saying that locally grown is the new gold standard for produce. But this may be a matter of fashion as much as anything else. Large volume production has shrunk the price differential between conventional and organic. So the beautiful people need another way to show they are special. Lowering the price of Bentleys so they are cheaper than Chevys would not make their existing clientele want to buy more of them. No longer able to provide them the exclusivity they crave, they would go on to something new. Perhaps this explains as much about consumer behavior vis-à-vis organics and locally grown as anything else.