Natural Foods Merchandiser

Inside the mind of the consumer

To justify paying more for certain organic products, consumers say they must be able to recognize and trust the manufacturers, brands and growers as well as the stores where they shop. Even if they don't understand the fine print of organic standards, they do have strong ideas about what the terms natural and organic mean to them -even when it comes to ethnic cuisine.

Consumers in the NFM 2008 consumer research survey see organic products as purer, healthier and better tasting than conventional food and other products. To these consumers, organic means no pesticides, no hormones, no artificial ingredients and animals that are allowed free range. Most (80 percent) believe organic crops can't be treated with conventional pesticides. In the areas of meat and dairy, 74 percent say organic producers can't administer animal hormones to animals. That's followed closely by those who believe no genetically modified or artificial ingredients or antibiotics are permitted in organic products.

Nearly 50 percent of the survey's respondents believe that products labeled with the U.S. Department of Agriculture organic seal must contain 100 percent organic ingredients; actually, the standard is 95 to 100 percent.

But for some consumers, knowing the details is less important than knowing and trusting that the retailers they patronize and the manufacturers of the brands they buy know the details.

That's key for Barbara Pope of Syracuse, N.Y. "I need to know it's a reputable chain or independent food store, not some little place that God knows where they get their stuff," Pope says. She shops at naturals stores "where you can see how they take care of their produce. Meat and fish have to be labeled organic. And there should be special sections for natural products so they don't get all mixed up together." She says she pays strict attention to labels. "You have to be a smart shopper and know what the labels mean."

Jay Jacobowitz, president of Brattleboro, Vt.-based Retail Insights, says core organic shoppers "are using due diligence. They're asking questions. They're going to have their own standards," regardless of what the certified standards are.

Pope wants straight answers from retailers. "The store has to let you know where they get their products from. They have to answer your questions. They can't hem and haw." Though she wishes the price of organic food would come down, she's willing to pay more for organic meat, fish and produce.

That gels with the rest of the survey respondents, who said they would be willing to pay a price premium for meat, fish and seafood; pet food; coffee; fresh produce; and milk, in that order. Farther down on the list was breakfast cereal, baby food, bread and soft drinks.

The allure of mainstream
Although they buy natural and organic products at natural products stores, many consumers still lean toward mainstream brands. More respondents bought Kellogg's cereal, Quaker granola bars and Stouffer's frozen dinners than bought Barbara's cereals, Nature's Path granola bars and Amy's frozen dinners.

When asked whether they would rather buy an organic version of a mainstream brand or a specialty brand more focused on organics, the majority, 57.5 percent, said they would choose either one.

For Jenni Mackey of Mankato, Minn., it's a matter of experience. "I see it on the shelf and the name is familiar," she says. "You just never know if you're going to like a specialty brand as well." Mackey regularly buys organic versions of mainstream-brand spaghetti sauce, cereal and ice cream. To try a specialty brand, she says, she would "need to taste it to see if I liked it."

As more mainstream shoppers begin to choose organic products, they're likely to stick with the brands they know, not specialty organic brands familiar only to longtime organic shoppers, Jacobowitz says. But small retailers don't have the space or the inclination to stock mainstream brands, he says. While small retailers can't compete in size or location, they still can excel in developing personal relationships with their customers, Jacobowitz says.

Lost in translation
Mexican, Chinese, Japanese and Thai foods continue to top the list of consumers' favorite ethnic cuisine, either to prepare at home or eat at a restaurant. Greek and Spanish food are also making inroads. But when respondents were asked to volunteer the type of cuisine they'd be excited about, Italian won by a landslide.

Not just any Italian food, though. It had to "true Italian," according to Erin Marie Dunlap of Seattle. "Not Chef Boyardee noodles with ketchup." For Dunlap, who has visited Italy several times, true Italian cuisine has to be handmade pasta and "food prepared very simply with the freshest ingredients there are, as it is in Italy."

That's not surprising, according to Thomas Tseng, principal and co-founder of Los Angeles-based marketing company New American Dimensions. "It goes hand in hand with several food trends eating seasonally, eating real food' (in Michael Pollan's parlance)," Tseng says in an e-mail. "There's a certain aspect of people's awareness about healthy eating (seasonal, local, fresh, natural) that go hand in hand with [the way] many folks actually eat in Italy."

Also high on the excitement list: Korean cuisine. Tseng points out that this spicier fare is growing beyond the Korean immigrant base and branching out in new restaurants from Los Angeles to New York that "function as new entry points for those with more adventurous palates and those who care about food, such as those surveyed, are likely to be more adventurous in seeking new foods."

What is the average amount you are willing to pay for organic products (compared with an equivalent amount/number of conventional products costing $2.50)?

Price Willing to Pay

Price Premium

Acceptable Markup

Meat, fish & seafood

$3.61

$1.11

44.4%

Pet food

$3.39

$0.89

35.6%

Coffee

$3.36

$0.86

34.4%

Fresh produce

$3.35

$0.85

34.0%

Frozen entres

$3.29

$0.79

31.6%

Eggs

$3.24

$0.74

29.6%

Breakfast cereal

$3.20

$0.70

28.0%

Baby food

$3.20

$0.70

28.0%

Bread

$3.15

$0.65

26.0%

Soft drinks/soda

$3.11

$0.61

24.4%

How excited would you be to eat more of these international/ethnic foods, either in your own cooking or in prepared food (including restaurant meals) you might purchase?

Very/Extremely excited

Somewhat excited

Not very/Not at all excited

Mexican

59.6%

23.9%

16.5%

Chinese

55.9%

29.7%

14.4%

Japanese

48.9%

26.9%

24.2%

Thai

47.1%

26.6%

26.3%

Greek

42.9%

31.9%

25.2%

Spanish tapas

42.7%

32.7%

24.5%

Middle Eastern

38.0%

27.9%

34.1%

Indian

37.4%

22.1%

40.5%

Vietnamese

30.4%

30.4%

39.4%

Brazilian

29.3%

33.5%

37.2%

Cuban

28.9%

32.4%

38.6%

Peruvian

26.2%

32.8%

41.0%

Which of the following brands have you personally purchased in the past month? (Select all that apply.)

Kellogg's cereals

56.3%

Barbara's cereals

10.1%

Quaker Chewy granola bars

32.8%

Nature's Path granola bars

18.0%

Stouffer's frozen dinners/sides

27.2%

Amy's frozen dinners/sides

21.3%

Crystal Light On The Go drink mix

17.1%

Alacer Emergen-C drink mix

6.9%

Promise spreads

16.2%

Earth Balance spreads

12.1%

None of the above

20.5%

In general, if you were to purchase an organic product, would you choose an organic version of an established brand like Kellogg's, or would you choose a specialty brand that is more focused on organic?

Organic version of established brand

17.6%

Specialty brand

22.0%

Either - equally likely to choose either

57.5%

Neither - not likely to choose either

2.9%

Which of the following statements would you say are true of these products?

Always/Usually true

Sometimes true

Rarely/Never true

No opinion

Organic foods are less likely to have harmful additives or substances than similar foods that are not organic

76.9%

20.8%

1.4%

0.9%

Foods labeled natural are less likely to have harmful additives or substances than similar foods that are not labeled natural.

42.9%

43.4%

10.8%

3.0%

Local foods are less likely to have harmful additives or substances than similar foods that are not local.

30.9%

47.0%

16.6%

5.5%

Organic foods taste better than similar foods that are not organic.

46.0%

46.4%

1.4%

0.9%

Foods labeled natural taste better than similar foods that are not labeled natural.

26.0%

54.8%

14.5%

4.8%

Local foods taste better than similar foods that are not local.

39.7%

44.2%

10.8%

5.4%

Organic foods have higher nutritional value than similar foods that are not organic.

47.9%

40.1%

9.4%

2.5%

Foods labeled natural have higher nutritional value than similar foods that are not labeled natural.

28.5%

49.5%

17.6%

4.3%

Local foods have higher nutritional value than similar foods that are not local.

28.8%

44.6%

18.6%

8.0%

Organic foods are better for overall health than similar foods that are not organic.

67.7%

27.7%

3.5%

1.2%

Foods labeled natural are better for overall health than similar foods that are not labeled natural.

39.1%

45.6%

11.2%

4.0%

Local foods are better for overall health than similar foods that are not local.

30.4%

44.7%

16.9%

7.9%

Organic foods are more environmentally responsible or sustainable than similar foods athat are not organic.

69.8%

24.9%

3.5%

1.8%

Foods labeled natural are more environmentally responsible or sustainable than similar foods that are not labeled natural.

38.0%

44.2%

13.5%

4.4%

Local foods are more environmentally responsible or sustainable than similar foods that are not local.

37.9%

41.7%

13.3%

7.0%

Jane Hoback is a Denver-based freelance writer.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 5/p. 18,20

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