Natural Foods Merchandiser

The new face of the natural products consumer

They're younger. They're closer to mainstream America in terms of education and income. They want healthy food and supplements, but they are more likely to shop at mass merchandisers and other mass channels. Who are they? They are the newest natural, organic and health products consumers.

Recent survey research conducted for The Natural Foods Merchandiser by Traverse City, Mich.-based Avero Research suggests that nearly 30 percent of current North American consumers of natural, organic and health products have started using these products just within the past year. This dramatic growth in the overall number of consumers and households who "self-identify" as consuming organic, natural and health products has come from people such as Greta Kivela of Evans, Ga., who began shopping for organic food after a friend urged her to try it. "I just don't know what's in food these days," says Kivela. "At least with organic, I know it's going to be pure." (See Table 1.)

Kivela began her foray into natural products with organic milk, but quickly moved on to organic produce, pasta and dinners. "I can't afford to buy everything organic, but I like knowing that I'm doing a little better for myself and my family," she says.

Newcomers like Kivela are different from the traditional natural products consumer. They are still relatively well-educated and affluent compared to national averages, but they are less likely to have a college degree and are apt to be an average of four years younger than longer-standing naturals consumers. The following results show that newer natural products consumers are much closer to the mainstream of American life. (See Tables 2 and 3.)

With a more mass profile comes a predisposition to shop mass channels. For example, newer consumers of organic, natural and health products are more than 50 percent likely than long-standing consumers to purchase these products from a mass merchandiser such as Wal-Mart.

That said, there are a significant number of newcomers who find their way to dedicated naturals outlets.

Susan Tobin of Traverse City, Mich., began shopping at Oryana Natural Foods Market after trying natural food at her daughter and son-in-law's home. "I just liked the way the food tasted—fresher somehow—and I liked the idea that we'd be cutting down on pesticides and other additives in food," she says. Tobin chose Oryana, a local food co-op, because that was the source of the food she had tried.

Tobin's experience provides an important clue as to how natural products retailers can take advantage of this increased interest by facilitating the word of mouth of existing customers and by encouraging them to try unique products.

In fact, newcomers reported the top factor causing them to increase their purchases of organic, natural and health products within the past year was advice or information from a friend or relative. (See table.)

At Ellwood Thompson's Natural Market in Richmond, Va., General Manager Wade Carmichael has a three-point plan for winning word-of-mouth referrals and differentiating his store. "First," says Carmichael, "we try to deliver a superior customer experience. We invest in training and we employ a mystery shopper to ensure not only that our employees are courteous but also that they are knowledgeable about the products we carry. We want our customers talking about us. Second, we focus our marketing activities on involvement in local events so that we can meet people and make a direct introduction to our store. Finally, we try to tell a story about local and sustainable foods that our customers can tell their friends and family. It's an area that really differentiates us."

Table 1: Period of Time Consuming Natural, Organic and Health Products

Which of the following best describes the amount of time you have been using organic, natural and/or health products? (select one only)


Valid Percent

I have been using these products for 1 year or less



I have been using these products for more than 1 year






Table 2: Education Level of Natural Consumers vs. National Averages (Mean)

Long-Standing Consumers

Newcomers (Less Than 12 Months)

National Average*

High School or Less




Some College




Bachelor's Degree




Graduate Degree




*U.S. Census Bureau, 2004 American Community Survey

Table 3: Age and Income of Natural Consumers vs. National Average (Mean)

Long-Standing Consumers

Newcomers (Less Than 12 Months)

National Average*


45.7 years

41.7 years

36.2 years





*U.S. Census Bureau, 2004 American Community Survey

Willingness to Pay for Key Natural, Organic or Health Product Attributes

Respondents were asked: Assume that there is an item you regularly buy that costs $1. The item is conventionally produced and is of a level of quality that generally fits your needs. How do the following changes affect the amount you are willing to pay for this item?


Price Willing to Pay



Fair Trade


Locally Produced (Within 100 Miles)




Made With Recycled Packaging


Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 8/p. 17

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