WHAT: Inside the Minds of Retailers and Consumers: Perceptions of Organics and Food Safety
WHEN: Sunday, Oct. 14, 9:15-10:45 a.m.
WHERE: Room 371
Many supermarket executives believe consumers are confused about organics, and that the quality and taste of produce is most important to shoppers, but consumers say they are aware of the benefits of eating organic produce and are actually more concerned about how their produce is grown than quality and taste.
These were the top-line results of a recent national survey of 40 middle- to senior-level retail produce executives and 544 consumers conducted by Cornell University's Food Industry Management Program.
While 87.5% of retailers said they believe the quality and taste of produce are more important to their shoppers than how the items were grown, only about half of consumers agreed. In addition, where produce is grown was much more important to organic than conventional shoppers.
“Consumers overall have said they want to know where their food comes from, especially with more things happening, such as the spinach and E. coli event,” said Mark Mulcahy, produce coordinator for New Leaf Community Markets, Santa Cruz, Calif., and a former organic consultant.
Keith Frosceno, vice president of produce merchandising for Price Chopper, Schenectady, N.Y., agrees that consumers are asking more questions about where their produce is grown.
“There have been negative stories on toys, dog food, and other products from other countries, so there is a keen awareness of where things are grown,” Frosceno said.
“We have a very sharp focus on locally grown and believe it is very important.”
Another primary disparity between retailers and consumers in the Cornell survey was the belief that there is confusion about the benefits of organic produce.
While retailers who were surveyed said they believe that two-thirds of conventional shoppers are confused about the benefits of organic fruits and vegetables, only 29% of these consumers said they actually feel confused.
Instead, many conventional shoppers seem to be comfortable with their knowledge about organics, according to Kristen Park, senior researcher with Cornell's Food Industry Management Program.
The higher price, however, of organic vs. conventional is an issue for some of these consumers.
“We think that, for many people who are not buying organic produce, it comes back to the value or price point,” Park said.
“The biggest barrier is retail price,” Frosceno agreed. But as more growers switch to organic, prices will become more competitive with conventional produce prices, he pointed out.
Retailers can also better educate their shoppers about the reasons for higher prices on some organic items, such as telling them that organic agriculture is based on a way of growing, and talking to them about where items are shipped from during certain seasons, Mulcahy said.
New Leaf Community Markets will be emphasizing some of its reasonable organic produce prices when it starts an “everyday value program” in the near future.
“We're going to have some basic staples at good prices,” Mulcahy said.
“It may not be the same items every week, but it will always be a low price on some staple items.”
In addition to the price-vs.-benefit conflict, retailers and consumers disagree on the importance of organics' appearance.
While 65% of retailers in the survey said conventional shoppers believe organic produce doesn't look as good as conventional, only 22.8% of conventional shoppers actually believe that to be true.
“It seems to us that the retailers are putting too much belief in the fact that they think shoppers are turned off by appearance,” Park said.
“Now that production standards have come up in organics, [the organic industry] has met that barrier.”
However, Frosceno said he believes that consumers do shop for produce based on appearance.
“They may say it doesn't matter, but when an inferior product is put on display, it doesn't sell as well,” he said.
While large national suppliers have improved the appearance of their organic offerings in recent years, items from small, local farmers sometimes look “dramatically different” from conventional counterparts, Frosceno added.