Signs Show Possible Bump in Road for Organics Sales: Hartman Study

Persistent rumblings about slowdowns sales in certain organic categories, as well as a suspected plateauing of overall organic segment movement, may have some truth behind them, according to new research from The Hartman Group, a marketing research firm based in Bellevue, Wash.

The group's latest national study, "The Many Faces of Organic: 2008," found that aggregate consumer use of organics dropped four percentage points from 73 percent of the population buying organics in 2006, to 69 percent in 2008.

Many factors are currently at play that could be prompting a plateauing of organic food sales, especially in certain categories, according to the report. Those factors include:
-- A renaissance within the 'culture of food' that has put increasing focus on formerly fringe food categories such as local and artisan products; and also segments that have dotted-line links to organics, but also stand on their own, including fair trade, humane, cage-free, and free-range.
-- A waning of consumer interest as 'organic' comes to mean so many things that its distinctive impact is blunted, and it becomes subsumed into a more conventional classification of "quality."

Consumers respond more strongly today to fresh organic categories, which offer the perceived benefits of being hormone or pesticide free, according to the study. Organic categories that still resonate highly include dairy, fruit, vegetables, prepared foods, meats, breads, and juices.

The study also pointed out that while the market as a whole may be plateauing, organic's appeal is strengthening with the "core" organic consumer -- and most regular (at least weekly) users of organic foods and beverages are now considered part of that core. These consumers are continuing to increase their purchasing and use of organics across a wide variety of categories. Core consumers are more engaged and passionate about the overall organic movement, thus their purchase frequency is increasing.

On the other hand, some organic categories may be dropping off among mid-level and periphery consumers, as these buyers are focusing their purchases primarily on the organic categories they really care about.

Based on these latest findings, The Hartman Group recommended that manufacturers and retailers develop specific understandings of each organic category, and tailor relevant offerings to match the differing beliefs and interests of consumers in core, mid-level, and periphery groups.
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