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What’s driving organic sales?

Though the rapid growth of organic sales at retail has slowed down, the consumers driving these sales are a committed group and remain passionate about what they eat.

That was one of the takeaways at an educational session during the recent Organic Produce Summit titled “Deep Dive – Organic Sales Analysis and Why Behind the Buy.” Presenters Melissa Abbott of Hartman Retainer Services and Jordan Rost of Nielsen, both consumer research firms, discussed consumers and the motivating factors in their buying decisions of fresh produce.

Abbott said in analyzing the motivations of today’s shopper, one thing is crystal clear: trends are evolving much more quickly than they have ever before. In the social media era, trends can rise and spread as fast as the speed of a text. She noted that in general consumers are more mindful of what they eat. They want transparency, are concerned about the environment and want to know what’s in their food, who made it and how it is grown. In fact, her company’s research has determined that among the next big things that they will be asking about are glyphosate herbicides and the health of the soil.

Moderator Kevin Coupe of The Morning Beat pushed back on the soil concept stating that “dirt was dirt” and didn’t believe that consumers would be concerned about that. But Abbott said that the core group of foodies are thought leaders. What they were thinking about five years ago, main stream consumers are worried about today. And right now, she says, that core group (13 percent of organic buyers) are concerned about the health of the soil.

She added that food literacy is expanding exponentially, with consumers much more knowledgeable. She indicated concern about soil health is consistent with that knowledge expansion. She also relayed that about 50 percent of organic purchasers believe organic products are more nutritious. She said the top attributes affiliated with organic products are that that they are grown without pesticides, made without chemicals and that their producers grow these crop with more “care” than their conventional counterparts.

Rost spent some time talking about the changing dynamics of food marketing and how that is creating challenges in selling to consumers and tracking their preferences. He said consumers have many choices in picking a retail item that is deemed healthier. It may be organic, but it might also be labeled in another way such as “natural”, “gluten-free”, or a reduction in other elements such as fat or cholesterol. It could be labeled “free trade” or “local” both of which conjure up a positive image in the minds of consumers. “What does cleaner, healthier eating mean,” he asked. “Consumers have lots of choices.”

He said there is also a trend to have healthier choices in center store. For example, cauliflower is being used as a grain substitute, and spiralized vegetables are starring as vegetables.

During a question-and-answer period, Abbott and Rost touched on many other subjects as well. She noted that consumers come to the store with much more food knowledge than they once had doing research online and garnering information elsewhere — such as food shows — before coming into a store. So while it might be true that they only spend six to eight seconds making a choice at retail, that choice is informed by pre-loaded data points. Rost said the growing food culture in the United States which sees much more information generally available, gives consumers much more “passive education” than they ever had before.