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IS SUPPOSED TO BE A WORD that settles arguments, not starts them. If two friends disagree about which restaurant chain makes the best pizza, for example, someone can always trump the debate by bringing up the long-gone hole-in-the-wall that first brought pizza to town. You might like Pizza Hut or Domino's or an independent restaurant in Chicago or New York, but on some level, those are all opinions,

“AUTHENTIC” IS SUPPOSED TO BE A WORD that settles arguments, not starts them. If two friends disagree about which restaurant chain makes the best pizza, for example, someone can always trump the debate by bringing up the long-gone hole-in-the-wall that first brought pizza to town.

“You might like Pizza Hut or Domino's or an independent restaurant in Chicago or New York, but on some level, those are all opinions,” explained Jarrett Paschel, director of retail and consumer trends for The Hartman Group, a consulting firm in Bellevue, Wash. “Authenticity is a great thing, because you can say, ‘This is the way it's really supposed to be done.’ It determines legitimacy.”

In natural food retailing, however, “the way it's really supposed to be done” has become a jumble of ideas. Whether they're organically grown, locally sourced, humanely raised or fairly traded, the products that fill natural food sets are usually outfitted with some type of idealistic message that certainly seems to play a key role in their ability to draw a premium price. What is really important to natural food shoppers, though, and how do retailers highlight these messages?

“For many years, the assumption was that people were going to places such as the large natural food chains and co-ops because they wanted organic and natural foods, and they had a clear understanding of what organic meant and they ascribed to all of the political beliefs that came with that whole package,” noted Paschel. The reality seems to be simpler, he argues: The natural and organic aspect is only a single component of a larger desire for a unique shopping experience.

To explain, Paschel related an anecdote about a recent visit he made to an H-E-B Central Market in Texas.

“There was a guy standing outside with a big display of tomatoes,” he said. “He told me that they were from a local Texas farm that [H-E-B] worked with regularly, but said that this was one of the best batches that they'd ever received to sell, and that I had to taste it right now. So he takes a slice and puts it on a piece of bread and hands it to me.”

There's obviously something deeper going on at Central Market than a proactive sampling program. But even on the surface, it's simple to understand why a message delivered by an enthusiastic employee is so engaging.

“Typically, for something to be considered authentic, there's a narrative involved, and a key element to narrative is people and places,” said Paschel. “The farmer's name, the farm it came from. The names of people, the craftspeople who made the product. That's what drives the narrative.”

The “story” extends further for retailers, who must take into account the standards behind foods like organic or fair-trade. Operators who grasp this concept, and establish policies and buying standards reflecting those ideals, place themselves in a strong position as trusted, preferred purveyors of authentic foods.

Food stores like these, as well as local co-ops, generally demonstrate a great deal of flexibility by adopting and enforcing new standards on issues like animal treatment and local sourcing whenever their shoppers raise legitimate concerns, noted Ronnie Cummins, executive director of the Organic Consumers Association.

Natural and organic products themselves seem to be doing well in other food retailing formats, however, and one industry thinker encourages retailers to take a broader perspective when trying to pin down exactly what their shoppers are looking for.

“The desire for authenticity has a lot to do with technology and the advancement of a synthetic world,” said Kevin Kelley, a partner at the architecture and design firm Shook Kelley. During the past decade, he noted, the Internet has drastically changed the way many everyday human interactions take place. People began by shopping online or banking online, but now they have relationships online and date online. Email and instant messages substitute for water-cooler talk.

“You can do a lot of things that avoid human contact,” Kelley said. “And on one level, that is desirable to people, and on another, it has created a tremendous deficit.”

Concurrent to that, he said, has been a steady increase in marketing and advertising messages that now permeate consumers' lives. “We're constantly being bombarded by insincere messages for products that don't work,” he said.

This “deficit of realness,” as Kelley describes it, leaves people seeking connections. To different individuals, he explained, authenticity could mean a local bookstore or a family-run restaurant or a great little market, but rarely is the concept associated with slick marketing campaigns.

As natural and organic products began appearing in conventional supermarkets, their pointedly un-slick packaging and back-to-the-land message may have helped convey that sense of something homegrown, non-corporate and authentic. The woodcut art, earthtoned designs, idyllic farmland scenes and tales of recipes concocted in home kitchens became shorthand for food that's supposed to be both better for you and better for the earth.

But an undercurrent of cynicism regarding the industry's growth is already building in the media. For example, a January article in The New York Times entitled, “Be It Ever So Homespun, There's Nothing Like Spin,” snarked at the visual cues on packaging produced by companies ranging from Stonyfield Farm and Organic Valley to Nature's Best and Barbara's Bakery, lightheartedly accusing them of “greenwashing” and insinuating that the public is being sold a bill of goods.

By conflating Organic Valley with Chester Cheetah, the piece certainly didn't help illuminate for readers the difficult questions and internal battles that rapid growth has fomented within the organic industry. It did, however, detail a challenge that suppliers will soon begin facing. As natural and organic products become more commonplace, so does the quirky packaging style and so does the “better for the earth” message.

Yet a key strength of the organic industry is that there is a solid core of shoppers who passionately believe in its mission and its standards. Organic agriculture and organic foods still have a unique narrative, and perhaps one of the smartest things that chains like Whole Foods, Wild Oats and EarthFare have done is to channel that energy into their stores by hiring people who really do care about the products in the store and how they were produced.

“In terms of retail, I think there are a number of ways to drive the perception of authenticity,” said Paschel. “A big one, obviously, is the knowledge of the employees, and the ability of the employees to speak authoritatively about a subject or a product.”

For retailers with fewer aisles and less labor to spare on the category, Paschel noted that effective signage, such as whiteboards with announcements and descriptions of new arrivals to fresh foods departments, could still help convey that sense of knowledge and enthusiasm.

And for the most involved consumers in the natural and organic foods industry?

“The most committed organic shoppers are definitely moving toward local and regionally produced foods, and those shoppers have proven to be the pacesetters for these trends,” said Cummins. “There's been a fantastic growth in farmer's markets and schemes where people buy directly from farmers, and it looks like retailers are all trying to do a better job with [local sourcing] lately.”

TAGS: Marketing