What Do Shoppers Want in Their Food?

Sitting in a café sipping a decaffeinated almond milk latte and reading the weekend edition of The Times, it’s easy to think that Europeans have crossed The Rubicon when it comes to food eating. Food journalists are lyrical on the need for our food to be sustainable, green, local, and ethical. But does our ethical food purchasing behaviour stack up in the grocery aisles?

In the UK, consumer expenditure on ethical food and drink products increased by 10 times between 1999 and 2014 and, now, comprises around 8% of total food and drink purchases – ethical here is a tad controversial as it bundles organic, Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance, vegetarian meat alternatives, animal welfare-friendly, etc. all together to come up with a “green” bundle. It doesn’t mean that conventional food is identifiably non-ethical but indicates that consumers, from pretty much a standing start 15 years ago, are increasingly asking for much more to be included in the food they buy than they did in the past.

Wholefoods Markets, quintessentially green.

Whole Foods Market, quintessentially green.

The top five North American culinary restaurant themes for 2015 are distinctly green in hue emphasizing:

  • environmental sustainability – e.g. Chipotle with its claim of “food integrity”, and supporting local farms;
  • natural ingredients – e.g. Carl’s Jnr. with the “All-Natural Burger: no antibiotics, no steroids, free range”;
  • hyper-local sourcing from urban hydroponic farms and from the local shore and ponds;
  • minimum food waste – good for the environment, restaurant profit, and reducing customers’ guilt. This includes root-to-stem/nose-to-tail cooking and eating (you know scoffing all of the hog including the squeal!);
  • and gluten-free cuisine – 7% of North Americans are sensitive to gluten but a massive 63% believe that gluten-free diets are better for their physical and mental health.

An USA National Restaurant Association survey of restaurant protein trends links to these overall themes with the Top 5 being:

  • locally-sourced meat and seafood;
  • new, lower cost cuts of meat – e.g. shoulder/butt of pork for pulled pork dishes; flat iron steak from beef chuck;
  • sustainable seafood – with 3rd Party endorsement, such as Marine Stewardship Council;
  • “non-traditional” fish and seafood – to “save” over-fished species such as cod, Pollock is presented as a “greener” alternative; or farmed fish being given a benign make-over instead of dwindling stocks of wild-caught;
  • grass-fed beef – e.g. A&W’s grass-fed burger!

These green shoots are discernible across the globe. Australians are increasingly looking for local in the food products they buy and see the foods they eat being connected more closely to their local communities – 55% of Aussies think that buying locally sourced food is very important to them, up 10% from 4 years ago, and 85% of them much prefer fresh food to be sourced locally or, at least, nationally. There is a clear message to retailers, here: shopper loyalty will be higher for stores that support local farmers and businesses, support the local economy and minimize environmental impacts.

So, green is the way to go. But, hold steady a moment. Recent UK consumer surveys on food purchasing shows that price and the attractiveness of promotions are far and away the two most important factors influencing purchase behavior, followed by quality and taste, and healthiness. Ethical/eco-friendly is only in 10th place! Consumers’ ethical aspirations are modified by raw economic necessity (sales of organic food slumped in the UK during the recent recession). Don’t forget, too, that some foods are essentially addictive and I doubt that consumers are struggling with ethical dilemmas when they buy a Mars Bar, Snickers, or Magnum icecream!

Bottom line: consumers are and will increasingly ask more of those who produce and retail their food. Whether it be local, animal welfare-friendly, environmentally sustainable, chemical-free or whatever, the green bar is rising inexorably. Consumer citizens will have their way and they won’t pay a premium for more ethical food, they’ll simply discount those that fail to meet their ever-rising expectations about the food they feed their families.

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Posted in Consumer, Credentials
4 comments on “What Do Shoppers Want in Their Food?
  1. Rob Ward says:

    Interesting article David. How much is this growth in these categories due to improving economic conditions (ie. Vulnerable to a drop in income) or a genuine shift in behaviour. (Ie. A long term change?)

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    • Surely it is difficult to quantify, Rob. As you know, organic sales dipped quite sharply during the recession and consumers traded “down” to local as an acceptable substitute given the economic exigencies of the time. Interestingly enough, organic sales didn’t dip in North America and continued quite rapid growth albeit from lower levels than the UK. We think that citizen consumer expectations about their food will continue to increase although, occasionally, there will be setbacks! It’s like consumer interest in food and health &bwell-being: they know what is best for them but don’t necessarily do what is best for them. Also, consumers are not rational individuals – we can be passionate about the environment and other social issues … at the weekend. During the week, we are just trying to cope so “Just eat up, Brenda and NO I don’t know where the food comes from but you’ve got ballet in 15 minutes!”.

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  2. David, interesting that the “ethics” part being only 10th in the most important category. It’s a bit like building custom homes – at the beginning they all want solar panels, triple pane windows and geo thermal heating, but when it comes to the final budget decision they opt for the fancy doors, the big timber porch and the hot tub. It seems that most often luxury and ego trump touted values.

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    • Yes! Or even when they realize that for the solar panels the cost comes upfront and the savings much later, they decide not to include them! So many factors affect consumers decisions.
      We hope you have a great cottage building season. Hope to catch up with you in 2015.

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About the authors
Prof David Hughes: Around the world, David speaks to senior agribusiness and food industry managers about global food industry developments that are and will affect their businesses and industry. Energetic, engaging, humorous and insightful, David gains the very highest evaluations at seminars, conferences and Board level discussions in every continent he visits. Miguel Flavián: works for several Spanish organisations and companies to help them to learn from the developments of the British grocery market and improve their business back home.
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