SURVEY: CALIFORNIA CHAINS BACK MARKETING GROUPS

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- California retailers generally support the aims of commodity organizations, according to a recently released study.The study was commissioned and released by the California Agricultural Issues Forum -- a coalition of 15 California marketing groups. It surfaced amidst a climate of some hostility toward commodity groups, which assess growers to create and conduct generic marketing

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- California retailers generally support the aims of commodity organizations, according to a recently released study.

The study was commissioned and released by the California Agricultural Issues Forum -- a coalition of 15 California marketing groups. It surfaced amidst a climate of some hostility toward commodity groups, which assess growers to create and conduct generic marketing programs.

"We wanted to find out what people thought about the impact of these programs," said Mark Houston, chairman of the Agricultural Issues Forum.

It also gathered the opinions of consumers, farmers and other members of the agriculture industry. The survey was conducted by Dennis Tootelian, professor of marketing at California State University here.

In addition to survey data, the study documented retailers' positive comments regarding the intent and results of commodity organizations.

"Most commodity boards provide marketing plans, crop estimates, updates and retail support for their organizations," said Dick Spezzano, vice president of produce and floral for Vons Cos., Arcadia, Calif. "Without them, the individual grower and shipper would not be able to provide these important services."

Providing information is an important function of commodity groups, according to Bonnie Warren, consumer affairs director for Raley's/Bel Air here. "The valuable information provided by commodity boards has taught me a great deal about the agricultural industry that I could never learn from periodicals, trade magazines or educational seminars," said Warren. "I feel more informed about California commodities and have been able to provide better service to Raley's and Bel Air's customers."

"Commodity boards provide a valuable service by helping us inform our customers about various food products," said Lynda Trelut, vice president of advertising and public relations for Nob Hill Foods, Gilroy, Calif. "They keep us up to date with product information, nutrition background and recipes. I find the trend information some boards release to be of particular interest," said Trelut. "Their promotional materials serve as a gentle nudge to remind me to write about these products in our weekly ads and consumer publications." Among retailers, 82% rated the trade merchandising and promotion programs by commodity boards as among the most effective ad activities.

The survey also found that 62% of retailers gave generic ad campaigns a favorable rating, while 58% reported that marketing programs effectively increased product sales.

The majority of retailers also said that in-store sampling, generic advertising and promotions and supermarket display contests were effective ways to improve sales.

Sixty-eight percent of retailers and those in allied industries such as agricultural associations also thought that growers who belonged to an organization were better off than those who were not. A little more than half also thought that commodity groups would be worse off without their programs.

"Consumers, for example, don't really grasp the details of how these organizations work," said Houston, who is also president of the California Kiwifruit Commission. "But the survey respondents told us that they strongly support the goals and results of commodity activities."

When asked to rank important issues involved in purchasing fruits and vegetables, consumers ranked nutritional value, price and appearance as most important. Brand names were not considered an important factor, according to the survey.

The study found that most consumers are not familiar with commodity promotion groups. Eighty-nine percent of consumers were favorable toward the idea of farmers working together to promote their products and industries, while 69% supported the idea of commodity groups setting quality standards and inspecting products.

According to the survey, 67% of consumers also felt positively about the idea of commodity groups conducting research and 66% were favorable toward the idea of consumer education programs.

Ninety-five percent of consumers said they benefited most from quality, grade and size regulations, while 67% said they benefited most from consumer education programs. "I was a little surprised that the level of consumer support was so high," Houston told SN.

The study was conducted by mail and telephone. Three hundred California consumers were contacted in a random statewide telephone survey, with a confidence level of 95%. Retailers, selected agricultural associations, state and national farm supply companies and university extension faculty were mailed 773 surveys, with a response rate of about 18%. A mail survey was also sent to 900 randomly selected farmers and 66 public policy leaders, with a response rate of approximately 20%. The majority of farmers and public policy leaders -- 81% -- said mandated commodity programs were either "very important" or "important" in promoting products. More than half of all farmers -- 60% -- said that the main measure of success for a marketing program should be increased consumption of the product. Thirteen percent of farmers thought the main measure of success should be gauged by public perception, while only 4% of public policy leaders said they felt that way.

Most said that the functions performed by marketing orders, boards and commissions were either "very important" or "important." Ninety-three percent said that is true specifically of research, while 82% said it was true in responding to legislative and regulatory issues and 77% said it was true of providing information to farmers. Houston said the forum would take results from the survey and use them to evaluate the Agricultural Marketing Agreement Act of 1937, which authorized the creation of commodity boards, along with the enabling legislation that followed. "We're in the process of looking at that, and looking at modifications to the legislation," he said. "We feel the need for commodity boards is greater now than it was in 1937, but for different reasons." The forum was organized in 1993, to create a more positive environment for farmers to compete and profitably produce food. Industries represented by the Agricultural Issues Forum include apricot, cherry, kiwifruit, prune, tomato, avocado, citrus, pear, strawberry, olive, cantaloupe and melon, cling peach, plum and table grape.