WEST CAMBRIDGE, Mass. - It's a success story one could savor over a cup of coffee - make that organic coffee.
Sales of natural and organic products are helping many operators revitalize their stores and reconnect with disenchanted shoppers. Perhaps some of the biggest beneficiaries have been organic coffee and tea, both of which are refreshing sales in key Center Store categories.
"Organic coffee has been a victory for quality; for forward-thinking retailers and food-service operators; and for consumers," said Rodney North, senior worker for Equal Exchange here, the fair trade importer and distributor of organic, gourmet coffee, tea, sugar, cocoa and chocolate bars produced by farmer co-ops in Latin America, Africa and Asia. Organic coffee sales grew 54% between 2004 and 2005, while conventional coffee increased only 8.5% during the same period.
To keep sales and volume perking, leading roasters formed the Organic Coffee Council and the Organic Coffee Collaboration, under the aegis of the Organic Trade Association, to set standards for quality and develop marketing strategies.
Supermarkets already have seen strong results from some of the initiatives. Perhaps one of the biggest benefits is coffee's merchandising flexibility. Not only are many varieties certified organic, they might also be fair trade-certified, bird-friendly, shade-grown or harvested by indigenous groups with a great story behind them.
"Integral to the whole organic approach is the connection to the land and the farmers," North said. "It's not enough to talk just about organic coffee, because it's not the end of the story."
Products sold by Equal Exchange come with stories of the growers and processors, which can nurture consumer loyalty, he said.
Garth Smith, president of the Organic Products Trading Co., Vancouver, Wash., said the category's continuing success is based on a commitment not only to seek out and protect growers, but to educate them properly in farming and processing techniques.
Smith noted that consumers may not comprehend the scope of the effort put into building relationships with growers, but they appreciate the resulting partnerships and the idea that their purchases help small growers.
"Basically, they didn't have a clue of what we want to taste or what we want our coffee to be in Europe, North America or Asia," Smith said.
In a nation made up predominantly of coffee drinkers, the focus has naturally been on that beverage. However, tea is experiencing its own renaissance, and likewise spreading a message of sustainability and social justice. Blaine Lanberg, California regional sales manager for Honest Tea Co., Bethesda, Md., said that suppliers - and retailers - should let the product speak for itself.
"Being consistent and authentic are the best aspects in how you can market an organic product," said Lanberg, who made his comments along with Smith and North at a recent food industry seminar. "Health and environmental benefits are a plus, but they should be genuine."