‘Local’ Finds A Following

What is the value of locally grown fruits and vegetables? Do consumers view these products differently than the more traditional items they might purchase from a supermarket produce department? Is consumer demand and preference for “local” products changing?

From a benchmarking perspective, these are difficult questions to quantify. Very often, locally grown products move through farmer’s markets where there are no scanners, making solid volume tracking quite difficult. In addition, many of the locally grown products selling in conventional supermarkets share identical PLU numbers with the similar conventional items shipped in from out-of-state. So, it can be challenging to measure sales trends in local products. But we can assess consumer attitudes toward local produce to determine what shoppers say is important to them.

Our most recent national study of consumer purchase patterns was completed in December 2009. While the research primarily dealt with how consumer purchase behavior may have changed due to the recession, we also inquired about specific shopper preferences, including locally grown produce. The survey covered 1,000 consumers nationally who identified themselves as the primary food shopper for their household.

We found that 29 percent of consumers surveyed indicated that they are now purchasing more locally grown produce than in the past (Figure A). About 6 percent of consumers indicated they are purchasing less and only 11 percent of consumers say they do not purchase locally grown produce at all. Compare those answers with purchase patterns for organics: 12 percent of consumers said they are buying more organic produce while 13 percent of consumers said they are buying less. A whopping 36 percent of consumers say they don’t purchase organics at all.

Of course, these are self-reported consumer assessments. The answers are not linked to purchase frequency or volume, so we do not necessarily know how these preferences relate to total volume. Nonetheless, this data speak volumes about how consumer opinions are tilting to favor locally grown products and may even be eclipsing organics at the top of the preference pyramid.

In another question, we asked consumers to tell us if they had any food safety concerns about a variety of products from packaged produce, convenience items, local produce, organic items, etc. (Figure B). It is revealing that with regard to food safety, local produce ranked No. 1 with consumers. Fifty-six percent of consumers indicated they were comfortable with the safety of locally grown produce compared to only 44 percent for bulk produce, 34 percent for organic produce and 20 percent for imported produce.

Finally, we asked consumers about their shopping habits, including the locations where they are shopping compared to last year (Figure C). Superstores were the big winners with 28 percent of consumers saying they are shopping more often in these outlets. However, farmer’s markets were second with 21 percent of consumers saying they are shopping these destinations more frequently. Nearly a third of consumers — 32 percent — said they don’t shop farmer’s markets at all, but it remains significant that consumers solidly indicate that local produce outlets are receiving more shopping trips than in the past.

In numerous recent consumer research studies and focus groups, we’ve observed that locally grown produce has emerged with significant, new influence over the purchases of a growing number of consumers. In some ways, locally grown has become the gold standard for these shoppers — even bypassing organics — as the benchmark for evaluating produce purchases.