The Power Of Suggestion

Consumers, who don’t live and breathe produce like we do, must try to figure out on their own what to eat for better health while keeping confident something in the fridge doesn’t end up as a health threat — for whatever reason.

Produce Marketing Association’s (PMA) latest consumer survey looks at what drives consumers to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables and checks their confidence in produce safety. Opinion Dynamics Corp. surveyed 1,000 primary food shoppers by telephone in mid-June and found that — leaving taste aside — other motivators for purchasing produce are crying out for our attention. These responses demonstrate how powerful our carefully targeted suggestions can be to information-hungry shoppers.

I wrote in my June column here about the value of touching someone through taste testing. In that column, I mentioned that earlier PMA research found 64 percent of shoppers surveyed reported their store didn’t offer taste-testing. PMA went back and asked the question about the relative importance of taste-testing measured against other drivers.

When asked which one factor would make them more likely to purchase a fruit or vegetable they’d never purchased before, 45 percent of respondents ranked sampling first. Another 27 percent indicate “a recommendation from a trusted source” would do the trick.

While we purposely excluded taste specifically from our factors this time around, I can’t help but link sampling to taste. Teaching shoppers through giving them a taste is a proven practice as old as the roadside vendors of biblical times. Today, successfully tempting customers’ taste buds with sampling lay a fast track to the checkout.

When asked what most influenced them to make a new purchase other than taste, 36 percent of respondents cite nutritional value as tops. We know that high-nutritional value is a characteristic our category largely owns and that produce is one of the few food groups health experts encourage people to eat more of. We can’t rely on nutrition alone as our sole message in marketing produce, but it must remain a prominent one.

Our respondents told us various “triggers” at the retail point of sale make an important impact. In-store displays are viewed as the most effective trigger (43 percent), followed distantly by print advertisements (17 percent). Sixty-five percent indicate a produce clerk’s recommendation influences them to purchase a new item; yet, earlier PMA research I’ve written about reveals almost half of shoppers surveyed report no contact at all with produce department staff. Produce clerk interaction can translate into dollars and cents that are currently being lost to lack of customer service.

Availability of locally grown foods, which ranked second behind nutritional value, also influences consumers. Twenty-one percent of surveyed shoppers ranked it as their most important influencer — ahead even of price, which was cited as the top motivator by 15 percent. When asked if they were more likely to buy fruits and vegetables labeled as locally grown, an overwhelming 67 percent said yes.

Previous PMA research suggests consumers perceive locally grown to mean better taste, nutrition and freshness. It should be no surprise to readers of Produce Business that the demand for locally grown has swept across the country and manifests itself not only in stores but also in some restaurants.

Meanwhile, in a match-up between locally and organically grown produce, local beat out organic with our shoppers; only 9 percent cited organic as their primary motivator. As Time magazine suggested in a cover story earlier this year, locally grown food seems to be have become the “new” organic in terms of hot buttons driving consumer demand.

Our shoppers report the major barrier to buying organics is price. Among those respondents who are not more likely to buy organic, 35 percent cite higher costs and 10 percent don’t see a real difference between organic and traditionally grown.

There is good news about consumer confidence in produce safety. Our latest survey reveals the percentage of consumers placing themselves on the “most confident” end of the scale jumped from 25 percent in April to 31 percent in June. Could it be the industry’s collective efforts to pioneer solutions and its ongoing communication outreach are starting to make a difference? I believe so, but much remains to be done. Also, we cannot forget building consumer confidence goes only as far as another major food safety outbreak. Keeping the charts moving upward requires every one of us to keep our vigilance up, too.

In fact, I see communication as a common thread throughout this latest research, which suggests several opportunities to appeal to consumers.

• Talk it up in the produce department, with sampling, produce clerk interaction and integrated point-of-sale materials.

• Showcase fruits’ and vegetables’ nutritional value and the message that eating more of them really does matter.

• Highlight locally grown products when they are available to make it known that contributing to the local economy is as important to your company as it is to your customers.

• Educate customers about produce safety advances. Lean on PMA for credible and current produce safety information.

In other words, share with your customers what we as produce industry members are privileged to know daily. You know how much this working knowledge influences your own produce purchasing behavior. Consider the possibilities of what this same information could do when shared with consumers. Then put this power of suggestion to work to increase their produce purchases — and your bottom line.

Think Double-Duty

What induces a consumer to try a new product? Some people expect research to provide new revelations, but good research typically confirms what we already know.

Bryan reports PMA research confirms there are two big drivers to new product trial in produce:

1. A consumer has sampled a product.

2. A consumer has heard from a trusted source it is a good product.

Note that the mere sampling of a product does not encourage trial. Consumers have to sample an item — and like it. So sampling is not a substitute for developing good tasting items; in fact, the better the item tastes, the better the sampling works.

Marketers also need to remember sampling goes way beyond what can be done in the produce department. Dick Spezzano, now of Spezzano Consulting Service, Inc., but at the time vice president of produce for Von’s and chairman of the board of PMA, used to give speeches urging produce vendors to get their product on the salad bar at Sizzler — when the chain was in its glory days.

Even giving Sizzler the product for free might be profitable, he said, because it was a mass sampling program. Giving away product can be significantly less expensive than paying for demos, sampling staff, insurance, etc.

Using foodservice, especially white tablecloth restaurants, is a classic strategy in new product introduction. When kiwifruit was first imported into the United States from New Zealand, there was no money for mass marketing — but it was introduced to many chefs, especially pastry chefs, at upscale restaurants.

Soon consumers were sampling kiwi tarts and eating kiwi on fruit plates. They loved the product and started asking their grocers to get it in so they could use it at home.

Vendors also have to remember sampling doesn’t mean just giving out raw product. Many times the goal is to sample prepared product. This both gives a consumer who already likes an item an idea for another application — which might spur consumption and purchase — and persuades consumers who didn’t know they would enjoy the product.

Many consumers who don’t like eggplant would enjoy eggplant parmigiana. Although in-store demos can be expensive, an advantage to demo’ing prepared items is co-sponsoring demos with other companies — in this case a bread crumb, cheese and sauce company — thus substantially reducing the cost.

The notion of getting a “trusted source” to recommend product also offers many opportunities for marketers at all levels — and overlaps with sampling. The best “trusted source” is typically a relative or a friend, so sampling or demo programs do double duty — motivating the sample recipient to buy and consume the product and promoting the sample recipient to become a trusted source, urging family and friends to buy the product.

One of the goals of every retailer ought to be to turn itself into a trusted source for product recommendation. When the Waldbaum’s chain put Julia Waldbaum on all its private label products, it created a personality — though she was a real person — who consumers could trust and turn to for advice.

Think of independent bookstores where the staff commonly has recommendations out on the shelves. No consumer should ever walk into a store without receiving the produce department’s recommendation as to what is particularly interesting or delicious today. Note to retailers: You have to play this straight; you can’t be a trusted source for product recommendations if you sell the recommendation to the highest bidder. And you can’t promote what you happen to be stuck with.

Marketing to foodservice also plays into this effort to get trusted sources to recommend a product. The simple appearance of an item on the menu of a high-quality restaurant is a form of endorsement from a source of great authority — add in usage by Emeril, Bobby Flay and the rest of the Food Network gang and one has some real trusted authorities gunning for your product.

Public relations efforts are important here as well. Another form of trusted authority is getting mentions from women’s service magazines, such as Good Housekeeping, and in other media outlets.

That nutrition tops the charts, after taste, in what consumers say motivates them to purchase is also not surprising. If you don’t know you are going to enjoy something, you might as well go with something good for you.

Many times research turns up findings that may have meanings other than those immediately obvious. Finding consumers are motivated to purchase by the availability of “locally grown” product may be such an example.

Although a few consumers may be motivated to purchase locally grown for environmental reasons or to support local farmers, these may well be niche motivators, just as the PMA research finds organic to be a niche motivator.

The consumer enthusiasm over locally grown may just be another expression of the consumer enthusiasm for good tasting produce. Locally grown signals fresh, crisp, ripe — all sensory, taste-related ideas.

Although it is reassuring to see consumer confidence in produce growing, PMA’s survey was taken before food-safety problems with baby carrots from Mexico in Canada and a Salmonella find on spinach from California. Doubtless PMA will soon let us know precisely how fragile or how solid those gains in confidence may be.