America's 32 million teenagers are a purchasing powerhouse, but most natural foods retailers would rather sell organic bean sprouts to their moms.
According to Teenage Research Unlimited of Northbrook, Ill., teens pumped $170 billion into the U.S. economy last year. While most of that money went to clothes, shoes and entertainment, awareness of healthy foods is on the rise. In a recent TRU survey, 66 percent of teens polled said eating healthy is "in."
The Washington, D.C.-based Food Marketing Institute also has some encouraging statistics. While 4 percent of all shoppers patronize natural food stores, 9 percent of people age 15 to 24 frequent such shops. Ethnic food stores are popular, with 15 percent of this age group making regular purchases. An impressive 66 percent of teens accompany their parents to the grocery store on a regular basis.
Galen Messing, a 19-year-old college student living in northern Virginia, is precisely the buyer statisticians have in mind. "I grew up on natural foods and it seems like common sense to take care of your body and the environment," she says.
With solid teen interest in things natural, will we soon see loud cardboard cutouts extolling the virtues of extreme yoga near the organic cheese department? Not any time soon, say national retailers.
"I can't say we're doing anything specifically toward the teen market," says Sonja Tuitele, spokeswoman for Wild Oats Markets in Boulder, Colo. "We're a specialty market and we haven't gone after niche segments."
That sentiment is echoed by marketing managers from Whole Foods Market, based in Austin, Texas, to local retailers like the Sun Flower Market in Albuquerque, N.M.
Natural foods public relations specialist Amy Barr says she's hard-pressed to think of any natural edibles aimed specifically at teens. The reason is simple: Mothers still make most of the food-buying decisions for their families.
"They're going after the moms first," Barr says.
Michael Sansolo, senior vice president with the FMI, agrees: "The main targeting still goes to the female head of household."
But Sansolo adds that natural foods retailers are leaving an enormous market untapped. "Teens are more likely than the average person to go to a natural food store. Clearly these are tomorrow's shoppers."
If retailers are baffled by the teen market, natural food manufacturers range from totally uninterested to slightly flummoxed. Chris Reed, chief executive of the Original Beverage Corp. in Los Angeles, has tried to target his natural sodas toward the teen crowd with limited results.
"Definitely we were trying to make a cool-looking soda when we put it in a beer bottle," Reed says. The company also markets candies in a cigarette pack. "We create alternatives to bad habits."
But despite more than 14 million bottles of soda sold each year, Reed's Ginger Brew is not a mainstay among teens. The major sticking point is marketing dollars. In order to attract teens, manufacturers must spend big bucks advertising on television.
"No one in natural foods has a TV budget," says Reed.
Robert's American Gourmet, the Sea Cliff, N.Y., maker of natural snacks such as Pirate's Booty, has plans to grab the teen market. "I know they're the ones who have a lot of disposable income," says Chief Executive Robert Ehrlich.
He is considering putting a "booty-head" song on MTV that looks and acts like a music video, but is actually a commercial.
The only naturally-minded manufacturers making any real headway with teens are cosmetics and hair-care companies, say industry executives. Jason Natural Cosmetics of Culver City, Calif., purchased Shaman Earthly Organics last year and refocused the product line with new, trendier packaging.
Natural foods retailers and marketing experts share a common conclusion about average teenagers: They're not too worried about what they put in their bodies.
"They tend to be all about living for the moment," says Rob Callendar, a trend manager with TRU. "They're not very concerned about the Great Beyond."
"Teens are building independence. They're not necessarily going to follow their parent's advice on nutrition. They feel invincible," says Don Summerfield, vice president of complementary and alternative medicine for Pharmaca Integrative Pharmacy of Boulder, Colo.
Randy Barrett is president of the Business Writers Group in Falls Church, Va. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 8p. 22, 25