Recessionary Reactions

What entices consumers to buy fruits and vegetables these days? In this new economy, you might expect the price to be the most important factor. So it’s no surprise that according to consumers surveyed recently by The Hartman Group on behalf of the Produce Marketing Association, in-store discounts and coupons from specific stores would most influence them to buy.

But don’t assume the story stops — or even starts there — because price seldom stands alone in defining value, and certainly doesn’t in this case. Amid the current recession’s penny pinching, more than nine out of 10 survey respondents said quality remains the most important factor in their choice of a produce department. Price came in third, behind store cleanliness, which was second. So it’s the quality and cleanliness that gets shoppers into the produce department in the first place — before anything else factors in.

Consumers also told us that the produce department continues to be a strong driver of overall store choice; 53 percent of respondents report they have changed stores for the produce. With supermarkets facing an ever-widening array of competing locations offering more fresh produce — different retail formats, farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture and foodservice outlets among them — the need to focus on the produce offering in a store has never been greater. (These new studies join the database of research available through our Consumer Research Online subscription service.)

PMA’s new research helps us understand consumers’ changing needs and expectations at a time when the consumers are cutting corners and examining the value of every dollar spent. Today’s struggling economy has not only redefined their meaning of value — likely in ways that will last long after the recession is over — but also has heightened consumers’ awareness of good value in the marketplace. This research illustrates that for most consumers, value sits prominently at the intersection of quality and price, and neither can succeed at the expense of the other.

Consumers’ behavior is shifting in ways that really aren’t surprising, our new research tells us. The consumers we surveyed note they’re buying less expensive fruits and vegetables during the down economy, and getting back to basics. In this way, they are defining value as those familiar, stand-by fruits and vegetables are known for their reliability and relatively low prices. Consumers may be reducing fresh-cut purchases and even growing their own fruits and vegetables to save money, both of which present opportunities for suppliers and retailers.

As consumers adapt their meaning of value in this economy, our consumer marketing and messages must adapt accordingly. Our focus shouldn’t just be on selling at the lowest price — quality is equally important. This new research offers myriad ideas for consumer messaging in today’s newly challenged economy.

A recent survey of PMA’s members shows the economy has members redefining value, too. The association’s members — our “consumers,” if you will — expect even more from your trade association than you have in the past. You told us you are looking for the latest information and tools to help cope with the economy. You want industry promotion, advocacy and leadership with the government on the industry’s behalf and industry representation during food safety crises. You are entrusting PMA with your recession-pinched dollar, and in return expect and demand more programs and services that deliver the value you seek to help your business grow.

Just as I encouraged you to adapt accordingly to consumers’ new needs, PMA is adapting accordingly to our members’ new needs. We’re emphasizing our year-round value, beginning with our economy-busting programming at the Fresh Summit International Convention and Exposition. This year’s Fresh Summit includes general session speakers such as Condoleezza Rice and Obama campaign strategist David Plouffe, numerous workshops to help your business find the upside to today’s downturn, one-stop learning at our new Produce Traceability Learning Center and the global industry’s best networking, education and trade show.

And our value continues year-round, with Fresh Connections education and networking events that bring PMA to your backyard, and our expanded food safety offerings including our “Ask Dr. Bob” audio blog featuring Dr. Bob Whitaker, new food safety symposia and our crucial financial and scientific support for research at the Center for Produce Safety, to name just a few examples.

In essence, consumers are looking for the same value industry members are looking for nowadays: help through the troubled economy and assurance of every day, year-round value for dollars spent. We can both meet our customers’ needs by building better connections and by providing products and services that promote prosperity — with a commitment to quality that nobody should compromise at any price.