Julie Gahm, a mother of two who lives in Louisville, Ky., usually walks through the door of her local natural foods store accompanied by a large entourage. "I squeeze in errands between dance class, volleyball games and play dates, which means my daughters and their friends come too," she says. "We're quite a bustling caravan."
Gahm represents the typical modern mom: busy, multitasking and increasingly aware of her family's health and their effect on the environment. According to market research by The Hartman Group, a consulting firm in Bellevue, Wash., 16 percent of all organic shoppers are parents with children under age 9, and that number is growing. Organic baby food sales increased 21.6 percent last year versus regular baby food sales, which increased just 3 percent, according to the New York-based Nielsen Co. And sales of all organic foods are expected to rise to $23.8 billion by 2010, nearly double 2005 sales figures, according to Nutrition Business Journal, owned by The Natural Foods Merchandiser's parent company, Penton Media.
The importance of mothers as a customer base is nothing new to organic and natural foods retailers. But they're a multi?dimensional demographic, with new and unseen opportunities for growth as customers, says Cheryl Roth, president of OrganicWorks Marketing, a public relations firm in New York City. "Moms today don't just want products that appeal to their sense of social justice," she says. "They want opportunities to be socially conscious."
A prime time for organics
The time after the birth of their first child is the biggest window of opportunity for moms to enter the world of organics, experts say. "It's when they start thinking about the health of their children," says Kate Peringer, marketing manager for The Hartman Group. "They want to preserve the ?purity' of their child for as long as possible, and they see purchasing organic foods as helping them achieve that." Gahm went organic when her first child was just a few months old, after she read an article about the danger of synthetic hormones on children's growth and development. Initially, she only bought milk and yogurt free of recombinant bovine growth hormone. Now, she buys mostly organic produce as well. "It just makes me feel better," Gahm says. "It's more expensive overall, but at the end of the day, my kids are healthier, so it's worth it."
Many first-time mothers, faced with short maternity leaves and long work schedules, also choose organic formula and baby foods for reassurance, says Roth, whose company markets Happy Baby, a brand of frozen organic baby food. "There's just not enough time in the day to do it all, so they turn to something that's healthy and nutritious to make themselves feel like a better mom," she says.
There's another, perhaps more surprising reason moms are going organic in greater numbers than ever before: pop culture. Peringer says participants in the 2006 Hartman study, "Consumer Attitudes & Behavior, Five Years Later & Into the Future," cited movies like "Fast Food Nation" and "Super Size Me" as prompting them to start thinking about organics and what they're putting into their bodies. Generation Y moms, born after 1979, are most affected by the recent wave of socially conscious films like "An Inconvenient Truth" and celebrity-driven media attention to organic causes (actress Gwyneth Paltrow frequently discusses her macrobiotic diet in interviews). "More and more of them are asking, ?Who makes my food? Where does it come from? Are the people making my food being paid fairly?' " says Roth. "It's because of the sudden attention that they're asking these questions."
Salina Avner, 26, a first-time expectant mom who lives in New York, says she sees a generation gap between her and her mother in their attitudes toward food. "She didn't question where the green beans she bought at the supermarket came from when I was a kid," she says. "She thinks I'm a little neurotic—to use her word—for asking my grocer how far the strawberries I want to buy traveled to get here. Just as my mom didn't think twice about serving me the fruits and vegetables she picked up from the supermarket, my child won't think twice about choosing the purest, most environmentally safe food."
Engaging preoccupied customers
Just because moms decide to make organics a part of their family's lifestyle doesn't mean they're a loyal customer base. "Buying food is not the highlight of any parent's day," says Donna Cohen, a mom of three who lives in Bexley, Ohio. While Cohen buys exclusively organic products, she alternates between shopping at Whole Foods and a few natural foods stores that are farther away. "As a mom who wants to take control of my family's health, shopping with people who are as thoughtful as me and dealing with workers who aren't just there to ring up my food does make it a much more positive experience," she says.
Many retailers are recognizing that it takes something extra to keep busy moms coming back. Mustard Seed Market, a 20-year-old natural foods grocery and restaurant with two stores in Cleveland, has stayed above the curve by offering more than superior customer service to woo its mom clientele. "Moms comprise 60 [percent] to 65 percent of our customers," says Margaret Nabors, founder and CEO. "Our philosophy is to let them give their kids a good start in life and impact the planet as a whole." Besides heavily marketing healthy snacks and back-to-school lunch ideas during fall months, the stores offer a popular Holistic Moms group that meets once a month, and cooking classes designed just for children, including a mom-and-kid cookie baking class during the holiday season. "We're providing a service that builds community and helps families spend time together," Nabors says.
Appealing to a mom's hectic lifestyle is just one aspect of targeting that demographic. One important trend among all organic consumers is greater economic and racial diversity. According to a report by the American Agricultural Economics Association, the consumer base for organic food is not as white or as wealthy as previously thought: Half of those who purchased organic food in 2002 had income less than $50,000, and blacks, Asian-Americans and Hispanics bought more organic products than Caucasians. Nabors, whose Mustard Seed stores are located in predominately white areas, says she sees this reflected at her store, noting that more minorities are shopping at each of her locations each year. Stores like Elm Health in New York's mostly upscale Upper East Side neighborhood are trying to reach out to lower-income families with weekly coupon mailings, and many organic grocery stores in New York accept food stamps.
As more mothers enter the organic and natural foods market, driven by changing social attitudes and growing access to products, the "yoga mom" stereotype is slowly being eradicated. For most moms, it's not just about following a trend or keeping up with the Joneses. "It's rare to have total control over anything in life," Cohen says. "Buying organic food allows me to do that. And it doesn't take any more time to prepare than regular food."
Annie Schoening is a New York-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 11/p. 22,23