What Consumers Want

I’ve suggested our industry’s use of the term “supply chain” gives us a somewhat distorted image of what really matters in marketing produce — or any product — because we can get caught up in viewing that chain as a series of steps flowing in linear fashion from production and packing through distribution and ending in consumption. Far better, I’ve suggested, is to look at how we supply produce as a circular graphic in which we start and end with the consumer.

Many in our industry now realize consumer marketing has to play a greater role than traditional production-based marketing. For example, much of the planning for Fresh Summit 2006 in San Diego is based on what attendees report about Atlanta — what met their needs, what didn’t and what they still need. They say the most valuable things they learn at Fresh Summit educational sessions focus on consumer marketing. The speakers and sessions that give new insights into understanding what consumers want and how the industry might respond get the highest kudos.

Our produce industry provides consumers with the greatest products in the world: fresh fruit and vegetables. Fresh produce provides health benefits, fits into all sensible diets, requires minimal preparation and is available year-round. Even though consumers are increasingly aware of these benefits and are receptive to eating more fresh produce, invisible barriers prevent them from consuming it in the quantities they say they want. It is up to us to discover and remove these obstacles.

This process is not advertising or sales; it is marketing. Marketing is matchmaking — matching what we offer to what a consumer needs and wants. It focuses on the needs of the prospective acquirer of goods and services.

To gain a marketing mindset, we first need to “de-commoditize” our thinking. We know how to sell a commodity, but we need to improve our marketing to consumers. The consumer is first and foremost; he or she is where the product flow chart begins and ends. The late, great Peter Drucker put it so succinctly, “The aim of marketing is to know and understand the customer so well the product or service fits him and sells itself.”

Our research says consumers need convenience and want great taste and high quality. Convenience means more than peeling, coring, slicing and dicing; it also means conveniently available wherever eating decisions are made. Consumers also want information, such as how to select and use produce. They require choices, such as packaging options — by serving size, by the level of preparation.

Supermarkets themed around lifestyles are a physical acknowledgment that the traditional department boundaries between food categories do not have the needs of the shopper first and foremost. That’s why so much attention is paid to recent innovations in the stores being developed by Marsh, Sweetbay, Safeway, Wegmans, Whole Foods and others.

In today’s fluid environment, consumer demographics change and shift faster than ever before. It has been reported that almost a billion new consumers will enter the global marketplace by 2016. Global business, economic and societal changes, and competitive developments will change who consumers are and what they need. The continuous explosion of information greatly affects what our current and future consumers know and want.

Not only is the current consumer population aging and developing new needs and desires, there are new, additional groups of consumers. In recognition of this, the focus of PMA’s Retail Produce Solutions Conference this year centers on marketing to “new consumers,” specifically, Hispanic, Asian, Gen Xer and children consumer segments.

We are not only in the business of providing fresh fruits and vegetables; we are also in the business of providing solutions to consumers’ lifestyle needs. We must proactively obtain information to drive marketing efforts. Frequently, this is consumer-directed research. The industry must hear and respond. Responding appropriately will require us to innovate in the areas of convenience, taste, and choice. Not surprisingly, the New Products Showcase was one of the most heavily attended areas of Fresh Summit 2005.

Innovation isn’t always about creating something new. It’s also about finding new ways to communicate and merchandise. As people become more educated about food, they require more information. They want to know the country of origin and how to store produce items. They are asking to be taught how to select produce and use it. Those under 30 years of age are looking for recipes, those 50 and older for nutritional information and health benefits. A pro-active produce staff, chef demos, tastings, and signage help provide some of this information. (Is it really any wonder the stores offering more of these gain favor from consumers, media and, in the case of public companies, the equity markets?) Shoppers also want options in packaging, such as a variety of sizes. Convenience is the most cited reason for buying pre-packaged produce, which is also viewed as safer.

Whether we come from the buying side or the selling side, it is important to view our industry relationships as partnerships. Technology and standards need to be our shared language as we focus more on our shared customers. Each link has insights that benefit the other, and by working together we can design our supply chain to deliver a consistent experience. Equally important is seeking complaints; find out what isn’t working. “Your most unhappy customers” according to Bill Gates, “are your greatest source of learning.”

Fresh Summit attendees want PMA to continue to focus on consumer trends, new products, and marketing. That is precisely what we will continue to do. Because, at the end of the day, there is absolutely no substitute for passion and excellence in marketing to serve one’s customers’ needs.