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Retailers as Food Curators


How organics can build trust, sales.

Now that organics have gone mainstream, with 59 percent of shoppers buying their organic food at conventional grocery stores, the role those stores play in their lives is changing — with enormous opportunities for supermarkets to become more relevant to consumers as curators (of products) and docents (of food and beverage information).

Those roles were played historically by a particular set of food purveyors, largely farmers’ markets, co-ops and specialty grocery chains. Conventional grocery stores were the places where shoppers found food at reasonable prices — often at the cost of less product curation and information. All that has changed, and mainstream grocers now carry large amounts of organic products, often at more reasonable prices than people can find them in specialty outlets.

What conventional stores don’t offer yet on a broad scale are engaged learning experiences that inspire customers to try new products or use old products in new ways. Those experiences result from good curation, which brings excitement to stores such as Mariano’s in Chicago and Lunds and Byerly’s new prepared food venue in the Twin Cities.

Over time, strong curation also generates enough trust that customers become comfortable walking in and grabbing what they need without having to consider whether the products are of high quality. Although quality is a subjective measure, a growing number of consumers believe high quality includes organics as well as authentic, interesting flavors from food that’s sustainably sourced.

Shopping trips become easier when consumers trust a grocer to wisely choose which organic products to offer based on the season, pricing and other variables. They will pay more for food they believe was chosen thoughtfully and with their values in mind — which will make Whole Foods’ recent move toward more high-grade conventional offerings interesting to watch.

A major component of curation includes acting as a docent or guide for customers, educating them about the food they’re buying. The stories behind certain foods can be compelling, and information about organics can alleviate confusion and build trust. Although shoppers at conventional grocery stores have seen more organics, most are left to educate themselves about which foods are worth the extra price, information for which can be conveyed via shelf tags, displays, websites and — to build even stronger rapport — trained employees.

Information about organics has led many shoppers to prioritize organic spending on vegetables, fruit and dairy (the three categories through which most people enter the “world of organics”), as well as meat, which many consumers say they would like to buy organic but find too expensive. Consumers experiment with reasonably priced organic breads and cereals, but only sporadically buy boxed, canned and frozen organics.

There are many ways to curate organics, beyond deciding whether to position them in their own sections or alongside conventional foods. Stores can differentiate themselves by offering the widest selection possible in certain categories, by using sampling and cooking demonstrations, by training employees to talk about organics and other foods, and by sharing information in-store, online and in customer newsletters (which can be mailed or used as advertising).

Organics present an excellent opportunity for retailers to build trust with customers. Even the most informed consumers are not likely to be as current on organic issues as grocery buyers. By sharing that information and demonstrating how it informs product selection, conventional grocery stores can build trust — and become go-to spots for all kinds of food, organic or not.

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