Finding Our Way To Innovation

Automaker Henry Ford once said, “If I’d asked people what they wanted, they would have asked for a faster horse.” Ford felt that consumers who don’t have their heads in a particular market day in and day out have limited ability to anticipate the marketplace. Yet to think we can single-handedly understand consumers and create meaningful solutions to their everyday problems is just plain old-fashioned.

Today, dialogue drives discovery and marketplace innovation, and Produce Marketing Association (PMA) helps foster that dialogue — with the industry, with experts, and with consumers. Today’s consumers are much more complex than Ford’s. With little patience for products and services that don’t speak directly to them, they want a voice and a choice. After all, their breadth of choice is driven by a myriad of information sources as varied as the Food Network on TV and many Internet recipe sites suggesting new uses for staple produce items as well as easy ways to use exotics.

From Jan. 22-24, 2008, Opinion Dynamics Corporation conducted a national telephone survey for PMA of 1,000 primary-shopper consumers. To keep produce marketing on track with consumer insight, we examined a range of issues dealing with produce-department shopping habits.

In the supermarket, it is clear that choice rules. The ability to choose from an array of fruits and vegetables ranks as extremely important for 63 percent of respondents. We all know the bounty our industry produces. Case in point, PMA’s I Know Produce fruit and vegetable database offers in-depth information for nearly 175 produce commodities and more than 2,800 varieties with continually updated content about the newest varieties and offerings.

Meanwhile, consumers are split on how they like to check out, once again indicating they like to have a choice; a little over half (53 percent) of shoppers tell us they never use self-checkout, while another 47 percent of respondents use self-checkout most or all of the time.

When asked what they think would improve their produce department, not surprisingly, the consumers we surveyed place lower prices (aka the “faster horse”) at the top of what would most ease their produce department frustrations. With only 8 percent saying their stores need a wider selection, it seems that we are offering consumers a good selection — though how they define a “good” selection constantly evolves.

Retailers should also be glad to know that 48 percent of shoppers can’t suggest anything they’d change in the produce department; 62 percent say the department’s organization makes sense. If department layout is going unnoticed and shoppers aren’t slowed, then today’s model seems to be working — for today, anyway.

The recent market entry of Fresh & Easy stores from Tesco, however, suggests that Tesco thinks it has a new insight into what consumers’ want that others haven’t yet met — or it suggests that consumers’ interests may change if they grow to find the Tesco format appealing.

In reality, few consumers have time to evaluate the flow of their produce department. Set on their needs and not wanting to waste time, most shoppers know in advance what produce they are looking to buy, with 48 percent sticking to a predetermined shopping list and 14 percent shopping for a specific recipe.

This presents an opportunity for produce retailers to use the full arsenal of marketing tools at their disposal, such as store-special circulars, in-house magazines, and Web sites, to influence those shopping lists. Conversely, 25 percent of the consumers surveyed report they are impulse buyers, who could then be encouraged to make more impulse produce purchases if influenced by informative displays and eye-appealing products. More impulse purchases spurred at the point of sale means higher produce sales and profits.

One thing that can affect the likelihood and expenditure of produce shoppers is how produce is priced. When asked about their habits concerning weighing produce prior to purchasing, 44 percent responded they never weigh produce before arriving at the checkout line. This data point provokes the age-old debate about pricing produce by the piece or by the pound.

Ford’s weakness was that he himself lacked the vision of all the possibilities. Ford also said of the revolutionary Model T, “The customer can have any color he wants so long as it’s black.” Advances today rarely are one-sided, and all voices are vital. Are you part of the dialogue?

Food-Safety Footnote: January’s survey participants also told us their confidence in produce safety continues to increase, reaching the highest level since we began measuring in September 2006, a mean safety score of 5.0 on a scale of 7. We can’t rest in our efforts by any means; the recent ground beef recall of 143 million pounds was a painful reminder of what’s at stake.

PMA’s food safety initiative first announced in October 2006 continues to march forward. On the research front of that initiative, we are pleased to welcome Bonnie Fernandez as new executive director of the Center for Produce Safety at University of California, Davis, partially funded by PMA. Her voice will be critical to the ongoing food-safety dialogue that is vital to the future of our industry.