Regaining Consumers’ Hearts And Minds

Why The Disconnect In Price Perception Versus Reality?

By Jim Prevor, Editor-in-Chief, Produce Business

When consumers say things that aren’t true — that produce is too expensive — good researchers don’t dismiss those claims; they pause to wonder why those surveyed said that. And to a certain extent, that is what PMA did.

Since we know, thanks to the PMA research, that produce is quite affordable, why would consumers say otherwise? Could it be that this is a cover-up of sorts? Consumers know they should eat more produce, but they don’t, so they want to blame some other factor. Affordability is a good choice because nobody will think ill of someone who doesn’t buy an item because they can’t afford it.

We would suggest, though, that consumers actually perceive fresh produce to be expensive because they throw out a great deal of it and that image of waste stays with them. Some of this may be due to factors the industry can potentially control. If consumers throw out fresh produce because they bite into an apple and find it mealy; bite into a peach and find it tasteless; or find a melon lacking in sweetness, concerted effort along the supply chain can help change this experience. However, this change will not come easily and may come only by increasing waste in the supply chain, and perhaps prices, as items will get rejected for not meeting epicurean standards.

However, one suspects that an awful lot of produce goes to waste simply because life is somewhat unpredictable. As a result, the produce purchased can go bad when dinner plans change because the kids’ game goes into overtime or a parent has to work late at the office. Maybe Grandma and Grandpa stop by and offer to take everyone to dinner or a neighbor suggests a barbeque. This is a big problem for produce. Many people buy meat and immediately put most of it in the freezer. Bread from the bakery can go bad, but it is a much smaller department. Deli and, especially, prepared foods aren’t commodities and ingredients in the way produce is and thus, are not expected to be economical.

This all points to an industry need to focus on smaller items. That big head of lettuce may be very inexpensive, but one suspects that consumers who only eat half of it and throw out the rest feel they are being wasteful and, therefore, think the item is expensive.

Another possibility is that our very progressive industry, with lots of innovative fresh-cut items, has changed the very definition of fresh produce. Perhaps many consumers just won’t consider buying a head of cabbage; maybe they will buy pre-shredded coleslaw or, maybe, they want it already prepared and so they buy it from the deli. Maybe even on commodities, consumer perception has changed. Mann Packing used to focus on commodity broccoli; now it sells a more upscale and trademarked Broccolini. Then, of course, the consumers might believe that only organic or only local is acceptable.

The point is that the industry is likely to benefit more from understanding the reality that consumers perceive they are living in than simply trying to persuade consumers that they are wrong.

When the industry steps up to tell its story, one question worth considering is this: To whom should we be talking? Bravo to PMA for supporting the Alliance for Food and Farming in efforts to respond to Dirty Dozen-type attacks. Yet this effort is probably not best thought of as an effort focused on consumers. It is too small an effort to reach many consumers, and the message is kind of complicated. The Dirty Dozen message, with its simple recommendation to purchase organic on certain items to minimize pesticides, is intuitive, even if meaningless.

What might be possible, though, is to “influence the influencers” — and this is important work. After all, when a self-proclaimed public interest group issues a press release, this does little damage. It is typically when media outlets start picking these things up and running them as stories that the damage is done. So a focus on educating and informing those who make the decisions on what stories to run and those who write and report those stories is an important undertaking.

PMA has made a worthy contribution by funding important research. We hope the industry will read it with an open mind. There is no doubt that we have good stories to tell and that we have not always told them effectively. If we are honest with ourselves, though, we will also acknowledge that we could make our story stronger.

Too often, we sell products we know do not taste very good. Too often, we accept the display of that product under less-than-optimal conditions so we can boost sales in the very short term. Both retailers and shippers sell a product before it is ripe to grab a fleeting “first” claim with consumers or to catch a fleeting high market. All of these practices and more are part of our industry and all help explain why consumption does not move.

Let us focus on telling our story and also focus on conducting ourselves in such a way that if the whole story was on the front page of The New York Times, we would all be proud to be associated with the tale.