Closing The Satisfaction Gap

The beauty of travel is how it opens one’s senses to different cultures. Having recently vacationed in Tuscany, I can still recall the flavors of that region’s cuisine. Yes, the great food was helped down with great Chianti. But it also stood on its own as a tribute to the role of food in doing far more than giving sustenance to life. The celebration of great flavors gave every meal a meaning and a memory.

This time isn’t the first and won’t be the last I write in this space about the critical role of better taste in driving more consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables. After all, the complex issue of improving the consistency of taste is simply too important — season after season, year after year.

So with Tuscany on my mind, I want to share a few new research insights while focusing attention on the satisfaction gap — the gap between how important taste is to our customers versus what they perceive they are receiving — between where our best customers would like us to be and where they say we are. This isn’t just research theory: I’m sure my good friend Jim can readily add specific examples of great marketers who already embody these best practices.

Our industry is in the enviable position of growing and selling foods that consumers are actually being told to eat more of, not less. Fruits and vegetables pack more health-promoting, disease-fighting, waistline-narrowing nutrients per serving than any other food group. And unlike many so-called health foods whose taste profile and appearance is as insignificant as their nutrient density, fruits and veggies also offer eye-catching, lip-smacking appeal — the kind that can make tongues smile. If only that were always our No. 1 goal.

Produce Marketing Association’s (PMA) latest consumer survey demonstrates how important taste and flavor are to produce consumers. Unfortunately, that research also indicates we are disappointing our customers — and missing an opportunity to grow our sales in the process. In late April, Opinion Dynamics Corporation surveyed 1,000 primary food shoppers by telephone for us. Their opinion is quite eye-opening.

Of no surprise, the consumers we surveyed report they place a high degree of importance on the taste and flavor of their produce — this has been a consistent trend for years. Taste of fresh produce is “somewhat to extremely” important to 92+ percent of consumers. Taste and flavor also are critical drivers of where most consumers shop for produce, with 76 percent of shoppers surveyed reporting taste and flavor are “somewhat to very much” a factor in their choice of store.

When asked how important taste was compared to some other produce characteristics, our shoppers told us to taste was more important than year-round availability. In other words, they don’t mind waiting for foods with inconsistent taste to be at their in-season best. That’s one reason why taste is clearly an important factor influencing purchases of locally grown produce. More than half (56 percent) of our survey participants report they buy locally grown because it is always fresher or better tasting. When pressed for their definition of locally grown, most define it as being from the local area or within their state.

When we asked which was the more important purchase factor, taste or health, we found a close race: 35 percent said health, 25 percent said taste, and 38 percent said the combination of taste and health influences their purchasing. This is the first time health has nudged out taste in our consumer surveys. In previous surveys, taste has been ranked a few percentage points ahead of health benefits.

It does seem we are largely disappointing our flavor-minded customers. The shoppers we surveyed report a low level of satisfaction with the taste and flavor of their produce, in marked contrast to how important they told us taste is to them. Only 25 percent report they are extremely satisfied with the taste and flavor of produce, while a larger 30 percent report only middle-of-the-road satisfaction. Lack of freshness and flavor are the reasons most often given by those respondents who told us they aren’t satisfied.

Why aren’t our customers more satisfied with the taste of their produce? Each of us could suggest several reasons. Criteria such as yield, shippability, shelf life, appearance, color or being first-to-market are just some that spring immediately to mind.

As it turns out, our customers appear to be willing to pay more for the good taste they crave, based on our latest survey. The satisfaction gap suggests that our industry has an opportunity to both markets and deliver high-quality, good-tasting produce, and to get paid a premium for it.

Nearly 70 percent of our shoppers told us they would pay at least a little extra for better-tasting produce, and 10 percent are willing to pay a lot more. This research indicates taste is important to our customers, they don’t think their produce tastes as good as it should, and they are willing to pay more for fruits and vegetables that meet their taste expectations.

This is a clear roadmap to grow sales and increase margins, by delighting our customers. Doubters will say consumers always tell researchers they’ll pay more for better taste and quality but don’t behave that way. But look around the country and at market leaders worldwide and you’ll see companies closing the satisfaction gap and making more money doing it. Starbucks coffee, anyone?