Natural Foods Merchandiser

What's on organic consumers' minds

These days, organics shoppers are swayed by conflicting information more than ever. Multiple reports come out daily on various environmental and health risks associated with conventional products. A proliferating assortment of product certifications and warning labels appear out of nowhere. The looming shadow of the weak economy hangs over their heads.

So how exactly are shoppers deciding which organic products to buy—and which to leave on the shelves? To get an idea, consider the habits of two organic consumers:

Reuel Daniels, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based urban planner, estimates that between 40 percent and 50 percent of her regular grocery bill consists of organic products—namely produce, meat and personal care items. A self-labeled foodie, she’s concerned about the risk of genetically modified organisms and pesticides in conventional foods, and as the daughter of a cancer survivor, she’s careful about what sort of chemicals she uses on her body and hair. In the economic downturn, she’s cut back on trips to natural foods stores, but she’s still willing to pay extra for organic. “I will splurge to make sure I am putting the right type of foods in my body,” she says.

Kelvin Schleif, a financial manager in the Boston area, figures a third of his groceries come from natural retailers. His rationale for buying organic is simple: He wants the best foods for his 2-year-old daughter. “I’ve read that shopping organic doesn’t make that much difference for the environment,” he says, so it’s all for the sake of his family.

Both Daniels and Schleif fit into general organic shopping trends, says Chris Haack, senior analyst for Chicago-based market research firm Mintel. According to Haack, a February shopper survey reported that slightly more than half of all respondents were willing to pay at least a dollar more for “green” products—but their reasons for doing so were intensely personal.

“It’s not just about doing something good for the environment,” says Haack, “it has to be for the health and safety of yourself and your family.”

The number of consumers who aren’t willing to pay a premium for organic and other green items is increasing, however—from 30 percent of shoppers in 2008 to 45 percent in late 2009, reports Haack. Rough financial times is certainly one of the reasons, but consumers may also be struggling with information overload, says Stéphane de Messières, executive director of Citizens Market, a website where consumers rate manufacturers’ social and environmental behavior.

“The organics movement has a very strong brand and label, but there are other labels on the rise, and the proliferation of ethical labels is in a way competing with organic,” he says. “It’s effectively going to dilute the potency of the organics brand.”

Retailers and manufacturers have to find ways of communicating the values of organic products to attract organic buying rather than adulterate it, says de Messières. As Reuel puts it, “I would like to see more information that really lets people understand what is ‘organic’ and why it’s so important for us to buy it.”

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