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Consumers are driving food culture change

ANAHEIM, CA — The food culture in America is changing, and the fresh produce industry is perfectly positioned to capitalize on the changing desires of consumers.

That was one of the topics discussed at a workshop held Friday, Oct. 26, during the Produce Marketing Association Fresh Summit, here.

Titled “Turning Consumers into Customers to Increase Consumption,” the session was moderated by Steve Lutz, executive vice president of DSCN2846Laurie Demeritt, president of The Hartman Group.Nielsen Perishables Group Inc. in East Wenatchee, WA, who weaved a panel of experts through a variety of subjects focused on the buying habits of consumers in 2012.

Laurie Demeritt, president of The Hartman Group in Bellevue, WA, said that “food culture is changing rapidly.” She added that in the not-too-distant past, moms were the shoppers and dietitians were the food experts most people turned to. Today, there are many different shoppers as dads are often the primary shopper in the family, and only 30 percent of households include a child under the age of 18, so the “mom” designation doesn’t work by definition for the majority of families.

And when it comes to garnering food knowledge, many people list chefs — including those who have gained popularity over the airwaves — as their primary source for information.

Ms. Demeritt said that what puts produce in such a good position is that it is one of the few areas in which a supermarket can create a point of differentiation with its competitors. As they have for years, the average consumer still lists price, convenience and cleanliness as important factors in picking the store at which they shop.

The Hartman Group executive indicated that those three attributes are difficult to influence. A store either is or isn’t the low-cost leader in town, and once the store is built, a manager can’t change the location to make it more “convenient.” And she believes cleanliness is common to all modern supermarkets.

Luckily for the fruit and vegetable industry, she said “high-quality produce” is another very important factor consumers cite for their supermarket choice.

Ms. Demeritt said that is an area that can be affected positively — and it can also set the tone for the entire market. A store with a great produce department will attract consumers and it will give them a positive feel about the entire store.

She added that one of the bigger trends in consumerism today is away from packaged goods and toward fresh nutritious food. “Produce is at the epicenter of that movement,” she said.

Manufacturers of consumer product goods, or CPGs, are attempting to piggyback on that movement by having their products be sold in the produce department and making up descriptive attributes such as “natural” and “fresh” to add to their marketing scheme, she said.

The beauty of fresh fruit and vegetable marketing is that they don’t have to make it up. Produce is fresh and it connects with consumers on an emotional level. Consumers intuitively want to eat less processed food and more nutritious food.

She urged produce marketers to try to capitalize on some trends such as increased consumption of healthy snacks. She called the “health” message as well as “freshness” better drivers than “taste” for most consumers. People assume produce tastes good and they don’t seem to react to that marketing message.

Another panelist — Tish VanDyke, general manager of food and nutrition at Edelman in Washington, DC — discussed the most recent findings of an annual U.S. study of 3,000 consumers. Some of the salient facts include: 50 percent believe the food they eat makes a statement about who they are; 70 percent say they will change what they eat if there is a world benefit attached to it; 80 percent prefer U.S.-grown food; and 65 percent want to know how the food they eat is produced and processed.

She said cost of food is still the No. 1 reason cited by consumers for their choices, but the typical cost-taste-convenience formula that has dominated for years is beginning to change as more people mention “freshness” and other “food values” than they have in the past.

Ms. VanDyke said that consumers do not appear to be very well informed about current affairs. For example, 56 percent believe organic foods are healthier than conventional offerings and 69 percent did not know if the USDA’s “My Plate” program is an accurate guide of consumption needs.

In judging the food industry, a significant percentage of consumers in this survey believe that industry does have a societal role in improving the world. About two-thirds believe food industry members should take a role above and beyond food manufacturing to help their communities. And 80 percent thought it was an obligation of food manufacturers to provide healthy food that people can afford.

Ms. VanDyke agreed that purchasing food does have an emotional component and a company’s values are important to consumers.

Karen Halliburton-Barber, assistant vice president and senior agricultural analyst at Rabobank in Fresno, CA, spent a great deal of her time at the podium discussing the local food movement. She called it a “consumer-driven movement” that is about seven years old.

While the entire U.S. food industry adds $122 billion to the economy, Ms. Halliburton-Barber said the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates the local food portion to be $4.8 billion at farm gate. She indicated that this could be an underestimation of its financial impact.

Citing a survey, the Rabobank executive said that 85 percent of consumers say they pick where they shop because the store carries local products. She said local food sales are being driven by a number of factors but the top one appears to be “freshness.”

Consumers perceive that product grown closer to home is fresher; they also believe it costs less. Connection to local farmers is another driver but the environmental play doesn’t appear to have much traction, at least not in these economic times.

She said preferences by consumers have been noted by retailers that are heavily promoting locally grown food and are actively seeking suppliers. Regional retailers are especially active in using it as a marketing tool.

Ms. Halliburton-Barber said the analysis by Rabobank also indicates that there may be a negative impact on the larger year-round California suppliers. She said local sales have displaced some summer sales for these grower-shippers that have to plan and plant accordingly. At the same time, the movement is creating opportunities for regional growers, who can capitalize on the trend.

Over the next five years, Rabobank expects the movement to continue and to grow. “Local growers will become more sophisticated,” she said.

On the retail side, she expects corporate supermarket chains to give more autonomy to retailers at the local level to purchase from local suppliers.

The bank executive said that analysis also shows continued growth in farmers’ markets, which could be a critical engine of growth for local communities.