The tale is sad and familiar: The surgeon general estimates that 25 percent of young people are either obese or overweight in the United States. Not enough kids exercise, unless you count tapping out text messages on cell phones or pushing joysticks on video games. And sometimes it seems the only thing more prevalent than junk food itself is the advertising for it. At least 23 states are considering legislation to either curtail or ban school vending machines that sell snacks and sugary soda pop. But even with legislative assistance and ceaseless press coverage, the natural foods industry can?t seem to break through to the newest generation of consumersâwhat demographers have labeled the Millennials, born between 1980 and yesterday.
One analyst thinks healthy eating has an image problem among teens.
?It?s an industry that scolds,? says Rob Callender, senior trends manager for Illinois-based market research firm Teenage Research Unlimited. Naturals vendors and retailers fall into the trap of taking themselves too seriously, with the unintended result of sounding patronizing, he says. ?Teens don?t need any more authority figures telling them what to do.?
Some claim the natural foods industry isn?t well understood, doesn?t have enough retail outlets and doesn?t have a familiar-enough portfolio of brands. Nor does it have the money with which to continuously bombard young people with messages about its products, whereas, for example, PepsiCo gives away free iTunes music downloads; Frito-Lay inspires school lunch ladies to decorate their steam tables with stuffed versions of Cheeto ?cool cat? Chester Cheetah; and Starbucks spray-paints its logo on urban manhole covers.
?How do we compete with Ronald McDonald?? asks Lisa Ford of the Brattleboro Food Co-op in Brattleboro, Vt.
Retailers, demographers and consultants think the industry can do more to reach high school and college-age consumers. It doesn?t require a gigantic advertising budget, just well-targeted ads that are honest, smart and funny. And it needn?t be confined to televisionâonline advertising, coupons or contests are critical ways to reach today?s younger demographic.
?Teens are very skeptical of hype,? says Robert Wendover, director of the Center for Generational Studies. ?They have no patience for ads that are trying to mislead them. If you can generate a good buzz, [your brand] is going to take off very quickly. On the flip side, you could overhype it. It?s a razor?s edge situation.?
In the end, no amount of advertising can ever replace the power of taste. ?You?ve got to get it in their mouthsâwhatever you do,? says Michael Banks, a longtime consultant to the grocery industry. ?I imagine if you talk to people in this age group, health food stores are a mystery. It?s the unknown.?
Retailers must go where the Millennials hang out, whether that?s at school, at the mall or at a skate park. It?s a great opportunity to let young people sample food on their own turf while simultaneously educating them on the health benefits of natural food products, Wendover says. Then let the Millennials spread the word by cell phone, instant messaging and e-mailâfree and powerful forms of viral marketing.
?Teens are very reliant on their friends to get information. Word of mouth is the most powerful way to get teens to purchase something,? Wendover says.
This type of outreach is nothing new to many natural foods stores and co-ops. At the Ashland Food Co-op in Ashland, Ore., a culinary education specialist leads gardening and cooking camps for teen-agers. On the other side of the country, the Brattleboro Food Co-op ventures into middle school and high school cafeterias to offer students samples of different natural foods.
Nancy O?Connor, director of education and outreach at the Community Mercantile in Lawrence, Kan., conducts natural foods cooking lessons at secondary schools, high schools and the University of Kansas. O?Connor says the classes draw the connections between health, well-being and natural foods.
?Unless you eat a piece of seasonal fruit, homemade peanut butter or whole-grain bread baked locally, those connections are not made,? she says.
While co-ops and other small-scale natural foods retailers do a thorough job with community involvement, they have a less impressive record tracking the demographics of their customers, Wendover says.
Even those with loyalty programs generally don?t glean the kind of data that allows for analysis of customer shopping habits and preferences. It?s a phenomenon that Wendover sees across the industry, with the exception of large retail chains.
?Compared to traditional grocers, I was surprised by the specialty food retailers? lack of knowledge as to who?s buying their stuff and what their customer demographics are,? Wendover says.
And that?s a big oversight when dealing with such a savvy and influential group as Millennials. According to Harris Interactive, Millennials up to 21 years of age spend about $172 billion a year. Much of that money is spent on grab-and-go drinks, sandwiches and snacks. Most natural foods stores get that, and fill deli and cold cases up front with individually packaged items. Strawberry Fields, a longtime store in the college town of Urbana, Ill., organizes its store layout, signage and displays according to what many of its student shoppers want.
?We?ve broken up our produce section into open stock so that people can just buy for themselves for that night,? says Vinnie Hernandez, assistant store manager and grocery buyer at Strawberry Fields. ?We have smaller sizes of Silk?s soymilk line for those who won?t be able to finish the 64-ounce bottles in time.?
Twenty-three-year-old Jill Wussow wishes the industry would go beyond single-serve packaging and free samples to speak to her generation. She said some of her fellow students at Brevard College in Brevard, N.C., still give her funny looks when she mentions tofu.
?I think if the industry advertised the ethical side of thingsâthe anti-meat and dairy, the stupidity of the standard American dietâthat it would offend people for the most part,? says Wussow, who is vegan. ?I would love to see that.?
John Aguilar is a free-lance business reporter in Denver.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXV/number 5/p. 18, 20