Consumers have choices. Lots and lots of choices—and they're getting more every day. In two out of three categories (food, supplements and personal care) the shoppers surveyed for The Natural Foods Merchandiser's consumer research issue are using that choice to go big—big box, that is.
By the largest margin of the three, shoppers are going to mass merchandisers and club stores to get their supplements. A sizable 34.2 percent of shoppers, spending $31.90 per month on average, chose these big boxes as their primary source for supplements. The next highest percentage—14.4 percent—went to a pharmacy or drug store with an average spend of $29.85. The good news was that shoppers at supernatural, natural foods, and vitamin, mineral and supplements stores spent nearly twice as much on supplements as they did at the stores' conventional counterparts. However, they also chose these stores as their primary source far less often: 8.1 percent, 5.4 percent and 9.2 percent respectively.
Personal care was the second most popular category shoppers purchased at mass merchandisers or club stores. Thirty-two percent opted for these big boxes—and spent $22.60 per month there on average. Pharmacies or drug stores were the next most popular choice, at 14.3 percent. Again, shoppers tended to spend more on personal care products in a supernatural, natural foods, or vitamin, mineral and supplements store, but the difference was not nearly so great as with supplements. Natural foods stores collected the largest average purchase per month: $38. Respectively, 11.1 percent, 5.5 percent and 3.3 percent of shoppers surveyed said they choose to buy their personal care items at a natural products retailer.
As far as food is concerned, supernaturals fared better, coming in third at 18.4 percent. However, 28.1 percent said they go to a conventional supermarket as their primary source for food, and 25.2 said they choose mass or club—the one category where these stores didn't win, but came close. A scant 6.4 percent said their primary source for food is a natural foods store, and 4 percent opted for a vitamin, mineral and supplements store. The good news again is that these shoppers spend more when at a supernatural, natural foods, or vitamin, mineral and supplements store: $175.69, $151.42 and $127.63 respectively. Both of the latter lost out percentagewise, however, to gourmet/specialty stores such as Trader Joe's, which came in at 8.3 percent.
When asked: "What percent of your total budget for food and household items is going to natural, organic and health food," mass and club clearly didn't carry the day in consumers' eyes. They ranked a distant 7th, at 24.1 percent.
Armed with these numbers and a desire to delve deeper into what makes a consumer "go big," The Natural Foods Merchandiser visited two local stores—one mass merchandiser, one club store—to ask consumers just that.
Joining the club
In health-conscious Boulder, Colo., none of the shoppers NFM interviewed says the local club store is his or her primary source for any of the three categories in our consumer research survey. However, all say if they happen to be near the store for other purposes, they buy what they can.
In a recent visit to the Costco near Boulder, Catherina Pressman, who declined to give her occupation, says she buys "what I can find here." She was carting around two cases of Santa Cruz organic lemonade. She was very firm in that she buys "only organic berries, teas, coffees, lettuce and root vegetables because [conventional versions] have high concentrations of pesticides. I buy only natural or organic meat." Any store that doesn't carry a significant amount of these items wouldn't be her primary source.
Myrna, a registered nurse who declined to give her last name, says she too goes to the club store for whatever organic or natural products she can find, and also had nabbed some Santa Cruz lemonade for her cart. She doesn't buy supplements at club stores because she rarely buys them at all. "People don't need lots of supplements, but they think they do because they've been brainwashed by the system," she says.
Shannon, who is unemployed and who also declined to give her last name, agrees with both women that convenience rules her trips to the store, and says she usually looks for natural or organic bread, veggies and snacks at a club store. She was carting away some Boulder Canyon Natural Foods potato chips.
When asked the definitions of organic and natural, responses varied. Pressman says natural means "natural, humanely as possible [if meat], not messed with or doctored, as close to what it originally came from, the least amount of chemicals as possible." Myrna also says it refers to being "unadulterated and nothing is added." Shannon answers that there is no legal definition for natural, that it's "just a marketing term."
As for organic, all three had a vague idea, saying it means no pesticides or chemicals are used to produce the product, but none could give an exact definition. Pressman adds that suppliers must use "natural fertilizers like chicken droppings, and the chickens have to be raised without hormones."
Going to mass
At a local SuperTarget, answers to motivations for shopping for organic and natural products were similar—convenience and price.
Mary, a registered nurse who declined to give her last name, says she shops mass only about one-fifth of the time, and that the only brand she regularly buys is Horizon Organic. "The selection is not great," so she heads to Whole Foods for most of her needs. She does buy supplements at mass, however, because "even though the selection is small, it's adequate for me." She regularly buys Nature Made.
Vicki, a homemaker who also declined to give her last name, says she usually shops at Whole Foods or Colorado's natural chain, Vitamin Cottage, but adds, "If I can get it [at mass], I will." For supplements, she heads to GNC, which is handy because it's close to her house.
Yolanda Deltoro, an attorney, wasn't purchasing natural or organic products that day—"just bread and [baby] formula, but I buy organic stuff all the time." Her primary store is the King Soopers near her house. "They have organic blueberries, strawberries and Horizon Organic milk," she says.
None of the three buys personal care at mass. Mary says she likes to get hers at Vitamin Cottage because the mass store has a weak selection. "I usually buy what's on sale," and she isn't loyal to one brand. Similar to the women at the club store, all three had some difficulty coming up with a correct definition for either natural or organic.
Deltoro says, "There's a legal definition for [organic]; I don't know what it is, though." As if to prove that, she says "I buy Driscoll's organic blueberries, and it doesn't say organic on the strawberries, but I think they are because I've seen them at Whole Foods."
As for Vicki, natural means "off the tree, God-given things, earthy things." She tells her kids, "Eat green. Eat what's grown on trees. Eat by color."Additional reporting by Lisa Ganz and Brian Park.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 8/p. 22, 24, 27