CONSUMERS' CHANGING NEEDS DRIVE MOVES IN ORGANICS

At what point does a speciality product that's in limited distribution tip to the side of becoming a mainstream product that's carried by numerous supermarkets?The answer is the obvious one: when sales of a product become large enough to warrant investment from the producer side. Sometimes, publicity surrounding speciality product as it becomes increasingly popular can spur the move toward mainstream.

At what point does a speciality product that's in limited distribution tip to the side of becoming a mainstream product that's carried by numerous supermarkets?

The answer is the obvious one: when sales of a product become large enough to warrant investment from the producer side. Sometimes, publicity surrounding speciality product as it becomes increasingly popular can spur the move toward mainstream. Regardless of the impetus, as sales start to build in a predictable fashion, producers increase capacity and start to look for ways to increase distribution. That feeds the rolling snowball and continues to push the product into more and more retailing venues. That producer-side explanation applies regardless of a product's origin, whether it sprang from ethnic product, a regional speciality or a product that meets a changing consumer need or desire. This famine-to-feast phenomenon has happened many times in the past; from bagels to beignets to bananas, they've all gone from obscurity to mainstream.

But concerning the last factor -- changing consumer needs -- let's take a closer look at the various elements that have conspired to push organics in the direction of becoming mainstream. There's a news feature on that topic starting on Page 25 of this week's SN. It was written by Fresh Market section reporter Roseanne Harper.

As the news feature points out, organics got quite a boost when the National Organic Program took effect nearly a year ago. The program, administered by a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is intended to "facilitate domestic and international marketing of fresh and processed food that is organically produced and assure consumers that such products meet consistent, uniform standards," according to a USDA statement.

The establishment of standards had several salubrious effects on the sales of organics: Consumers had good reason to believe product labeled as "organic" had a good chance of being the genuine article, and, perhaps just as important or more so, publicity surrounding the establishment of standards made consumers increasingly aware of organics, which promoted trial. Moreover, the standards also got every member of the distribution chain -- from grower to retailer -- thinking with one mind about how to produce and present organics to consumers.

"By [virtue of] the mandates, the group to benefit the most is the shopper," said one retailer quoted in the news feature. "Overall, it's bringing all involved -- from grower, to distributor to retailer -- in line. Assurances all along the way are in place to ensure [that] shoppers are indeed really getting what they're paying for. Our organic sales continue to increase, if anything just out of the publicity the press brought to the public. That brought more awareness."

And, speaking of the wider production and distribution chain, another retailer pointed out the snowball effect: "I think the program has had the most effect on growers. It got more [of them] excited about organics as a viable business, and that will help solve one of the biggest drawbacks still in organics: the [small] amount of variety available."

In short, then, a changing consumer need -- the need for lightly processed and natural product -- is creating a sea change in the organics category.