Natural Foods Merchandiser

Community shapes shopping preference

Is the woman perusing your produce department a connoisseur who shops almost daily for the freshest, most interesting ingredients? Or is this her obligatory weekly trip to the supermarket to provide for the husband, children and pets at home? Understanding your customer base can help you market products more specifically and serve shoppers more precisely. And, often, you can predict a lot about your shoppers based on where they live.

The Natural Foods Merchandiser's consumer research found notable differences among naturals shoppers from areas of varying population density. Depending on whether they live in a city, suburb, small town or rural area, consumers shop at different kinds of stores, spend different amounts of money and buy different types of products.

Suburban significance
The highest proportion of naturals consumers live in the suburbs, according to NFM's consumer research. That might not be surprising, since the U.S. Census Bureau reports large suburbs are among the fastest-growing places in the United States.

Convenience plays a big part in where suburbanites shop, and most of them buy the bulk of their natural products at conventional supermarkets. NFM's research also showed that most of the newest consumers of natural products are making their purchases in conventional supermarkets and mass merchandisers.

Retail consultant Jay Jacobowitz, of Brattleboro, Vt.-based Retail Insights, explains, "When there are new births and young kids, young moms want a clean slate with those kids." Often, these people will begin by picking up just a few natural and organic products at their local conventional supermarket because they're not deep enough into the category to budget a trip to a natural foods store, he says.

Tracy Junkin, who lives in Lakewood, Colo., a suburb of Denver, says she loves Whole Foods, but does most of her shopping at Kroger's King Soopers because it's closer to her house and has improved its selection of natural products dramatically over the last 10 years. Junkin points out that price is another factor for her. "I love to buy the natural version, but they can be pricey," she says, explaining that she goes out of her way to visit Whole Foods and local naturals chain Vitamin Cottage once in a while, but picks up basic groceries from King Soopers.

To best serve suburbanites like Junkin, Jacobowitz suggests keeping in mind all the other people represented by the one walking down your aisles. Keep family-oriented solutions in mind. For example, when suggesting items, take into account what kind of flavors would be appealing to children.

In the city, foodies rule
Shopping venues aside, the highest spenders surveyed live in urban areas, forking over about $122 a month on natural products—more than 40 percent more than those living in rural areas.

The shopping experience itself is a high priority for these urban customers, who tend to shop mainly at natural products supermarkets, such as Whole Foods.

"Culturally, in the city, eating is kind of a sport—there are so many options," Jacobowitz says. Plus, urban households are more likely to be wealthy, educated and have no children, which means more expendable income for specialty, high-quality foods.

For San Francisco shopper Shannon Adams, convenience plays a part in her decisions, but ambience and a relationship with the store's owner keep her coming back to Noriega Produce, the organic produce store five blocks from her city home. "It's pretty nice, because I can tell [the owner] things I would like, and then next time I'll see it on his shelf," Adams says. She also shops at a local co-op and at farmers' markets, and says that atmosphere, food quality and community involvement are big factors in her shopping decisions.

A tip for catering to your local foodies: Focus on portion size in your prepared food section. "In the city, you're going to want to think about options for individuals versus families," Jacobowitz says. And plugging into your urban community can set you apart from larger chains, he says, building a reputation of authenticity for your store.

Education vital for rural shoppers
Rural residents, on the other hand, tend to buy their natural products at conventional grocery stores and mass merchants, such as Wal-Mart. Kitty Person, from Burlington, Wis., says though her husband loves shopping at the big-box store, she prefers the new local natural foods store, Gooseberries, because of its personality, knowledgeable staff and selection of exciting foods.

Person, whose house looks out onto a cornfield, values a connection with the land and those who work the land to provide food. She says she prefers to keep her money circulating in her own community, but even with the new store in town, it takes Person 15 minutes to get to Gooseberries. NFM's research shows that people living in rural areas report driving between 16 and 31 miles to get to their preferred store.

With gargantuan chains like Wal-Mart offering convenience and drawing traffic from large regions, natural foods stores in rural areas need to focus on education to stay competitive, Jacobowitz says. Person explains that Gooseberries carries a wide variety of food she had not tried before, and provides information about how to prepare it, with classes and recipes. "They know our needs," she says.

Whether your store serves a town of 200 or 200,000, knowing the people on the other side of the checkout counter will help make your store their favorite place to shop.

Natural products supermarkets have the highest share of the urban marketplace. Smaller natural foods stores and vitamin, mineral and supplements stores do best in small towns and cities.

Those who live in urban areas spend the most on natural, organic and health food—more than 40 percent more than those in rural areas.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 8/p. 22, 27

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