NEWARK, Del. -- What do consumers want? To find out, the Produce Marketing Association has enlisted a market research firm to take the pulse of shoppers on a regular basis.
For the past two years, the association has commissioned Opinions Dynamics Corp. of Cambridge, Mass., to conduct telephone interviews on its behalf, completing a nationwide sampling of 1,000 to 1,200 consumer households. The research yields a great deal of in-depth consumer information related specifically to fresh produce.
"The sampling allows us to look at the raw data and mine the information to determine responses from the Northeast, Southeast, Midwest and the West Coast, therefore providing us with valuable data on differing buying triggers and consumer desires from diverse areas of the country," said Daniel B. Henderson, director of market research for PMA.
The data are also used to identify ethnicity, income levels, educational background, age, gender and number of children, he said.
PMA has taken a strategic approach to formulating the long list of questions asked of consumers. When compiling survey questionnaires, PMA consults many sources, including PMA volunteer leaders and staff. The association also considers the trends or "hot topics" impacting the industry and new governmental recommendations, Henderson said.
Polling questions run the gamut. They've included what is most important to consumers when deciding what types of fruits and vegetables to buy; how familiar they are with the new dietary guidelines and the federal government's "My Pyramid"; what fresh fruits and vegetables were recently purchased; and where consumers are most likely to purchase fresh produce during peak growing seasons. Recent polls also have asked consumers how often they shop for floral products at supermarkets.
Major conclusions from last year's polls sent a strong message that taste and consistency of taste are the driving factors that impact consumer purchasing of fresh fruits and vegetables, Henderson said.
"The top four consumer 'purchasing triggers' last year and continuing for 2005, in rank order were taste, consistency, nutritional value and price," he said. "When consumers were asked, 'Have you ever changed from one supermarket to another because one offers better-tasting and consistent quality of fresh fruits and vegetables?' a resounding 46.8% responded 'yes."'
One survey attempted to gauge opinions on packaged vs. bulk produce. Consumers were asked to identify their preferences, and for their opinions on which type delivers better quality and taste, and fresher, more sanitary and safer fruits and vegetables.
When consumers were asked a series of questions regarding purchase patterns of bulk vs. packaged fresh fruits and vegetables, PMA discovered a large disconnect between what they want or perceive and what they actually do, Henderson said.
"Key important factors for consumers are the safety and sanitary conditions of produce which they clearly identified as valuable attributes found in packaged produce," he said. "However, when asked about consistent quality, taste and freshness, the purchase of bulk produce items clearly prevailed, once again stressing the importance of these key consumer purchasing triggers and the strong message that these findings send to our industry."
Another major finding was that consumers are very uncertain and confused as to what constitutes a "serving size" of fresh fruits and vegetables, he added. When asked if they felt they knew what a serving size represented, a huge majority (81%) thought they had a "clear understanding" of what is meant by a "serving" of fruits and vegetables, but a series of follow-up questions suggested otherwise.
When asked to express in their own words what a serving is, responses were all over the map: from one cup, to a handful, to a half a cup, to a "scoopful."
"Moreover, we found that 81% also agreed that it is easier to understand an amount of fruits and vegetables when it's described as 'cups' rather than 'servings,"' said Henderson. "Only 13% disagreed to any extent with this view."
Polls last year also uncovered data regarding when various demographic groups typically consume produce. Snack-time is when children eat most of their fresh fruits and vegetables, at 46%, followed by dinnertime at 30%, according to surveys taken of baby boomers, dual-income families, single heads of households and Hispanic consumers -- all with little ones living at home.
Such direct consumer insight sends a message to supermarkets -- many of whom previously stocked produce departments based on general shopping patterns, he said.
Going directly to consumers for this information requires a paradigm shift -- a considerable change from the industry looking from the outside in to asking consumers to tell the industry what they want in their own words, he added.
Virtually every segment of the supply chain can benefit from the data, including research and development departments, marketing personnel, menu developers and new product development departments, Henderson said.
"All of this, depending on our members needs, provides a wealth of information for proactive and well-informed strategic planning and targeted marketing messages to key groups," he said.