The Natural Foods Merchandiser's consumer survey confirms that "local" is the new black, er, green. In a straight tradeoff, consumers would rather choose local products than organic ones, according to the research.
Specifically, when asked if they had to make a choice between an equally priced local but not organic, or organic but not local item when purchasing an ingredient for a recipe, 35 percent said they'd prefer the local item, while only 22 percent would go for the organic one. Overall, 44 percent reported they felt equally drawn to both types of food, reaffirming what many store owners have known for years: naturals consumers want it all.
Increasing media attention to eating locally has raised awareness of the benefits of doing so. "Before the last couple years, I never really thought about [eating locally]," says Deborah Shamoon, a survey respondent from South Bend, Ind. Media buzz drew her attention to things like food miles. "I realized buying something organic is not necessarily more environmentally friendly if that organic thing was shipped from New Zealand," she says.
Reasons behind the movement toward local vary, according to the survey (see table 26). The top reasons respondents gave for buying locally produced items were environmental responsibility, supporting community, taste and supporting local farmers. "I wouldn't turn down a product from California," says survey respondent Tom Gilliams, of Kansas City, Mo., but if the same product were available grown in Missouri, "I'd rather buy that one. I'd rather help the local economy; that's important."
"Why waste fuel to ship in many items that are grown close to home?" asks survey respondent Deirdre Folkers, of Harrisburg, Pa.
Taste trumps all, for some consumers. Shamoon says she "tries to buy all produce locally and in season, but I also like high-end gourmet. For example, there is local cheese here, but it's terrible. So I do buy cheese from England and Spain."
How local's local? Just under half of the survey respondents translated local as meaning "produced within a 100-mile radius of their home." Roughly 29 percent thought local meant produced "within my state," and about 17 percent thought it meant produced "within 10 miles."
"Large-format retail chains that initiate 'local' programs typically purchase from within a multi-state region. This is a disconnect," reports Sherwood Smith, lead researcher at Avero Research, which conducted the survey. "If natural products retailers are able to give a name and a face to their local products that are within this tighter circle, they will have a strong point of difference to win over consumers who hunger for local fare."
Some stores feature 100-mile aisles or 20-mile aisles. Others draw attention to a product's origins with signage. "Point-of-sale labeling is really important," says Erin Barnett, director of Localharvest.org, a Santa Cruz, Calif.-based information clearinghouse for local and organic food issues. "The signs really make a difference to me," says survey respondent Shamoon. The more specific the information, the better, she says. "And not just in the produce section. For example, there's a big Amish community here that manufactures packaged foods, and I'll see a section at the store with Amish foods but it's not clear whether it's from the local community or somewhere else. When stores have something that's local, they should let customers know."
"I think people need to re-learn the notion of 'in-season,' " Folkers adds. "Month-to month listings of what will be available locally would be helpful."
Signs with more details about the product and the community or family that produced it can also help tell the story of the food, something customers find very compelling, says Gary Nabhan, author of Coming Home to Eat: the Pleasures and Politics of Local Foods (W.W. Norton & Co., 2001), MacArthur Grant recipient and founder of the Renewing America's Food Traditions collaborative based at Slow Food USA. The RAFT map available on the Slow Food Web site (www.slowfoodusa.org) provides background stories for many distinctive regional food items that could be incorporated into displays.
Providing customers with more information about which items are local and about the producers of those items also provides an opportunity to let them know that in some cases they can have it all, though maybe not officially. "When customers complain that local produce isn't organic, it drives me bonkers," says Cassie Green, owner of Green Grocer, a Chicago store that features local products. "Some of these local producers are completely beyond organic. They just can't or don't want to spend the money to certify." Her customers are assuaged, she says, once she explains this to them. Then they shop happily, knowing that with sustainably produced local items, they can have their (green) cake and eat it too.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 5/p. 30