St. Joseph's Professor Delves Deeper into Meaning of 'Organic Consumers'

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St. Joseph's Professor Delves Deeper into Meaning of 'Organic Consumers'

What does the organic consumer look like? That's what Julie Stanton, Ph.D., assistant professor of marketing at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia, set out to learn with the help of an international research team.

What they found is that there's no single mold for the so-called organic consumer, but instead a variety of profiles of consumers that might decide to purchase organic products for different reasons.

"Everyone quotes 20 percent annual growth rate statistics for organics," Stanton tells Progressive Grocer. "That isn't such a big growth rate, though, when you're talking about making inroads in the supermarket industry. We were very curious about who these consumers are and where the growth might be coming from."

The group conducted a broad literature review of information on U.S. and global consumers, and realized that most of the information that people had gathered about organics was rather demographic in nature. "We saw information about older consumers with higher income levels, and lower-income families with children, for instance," notes Stanton. "But we were interested in taking a more qualitative approach, so we decided to look at consumers from more of an attitudinal basis."

The team developed a survey that sorts statements about organic food in a way designed to best represent how the consumers actually feel about organics, she says. Statements ranged from "good for my family" to "worth a premium price" to "harmful to the environment." The researchers also followed up the surveys with interviews to better understand consumers' feelings.

The geographic base for the survey was fairly small, and mostly in the Philadelphia region -- but its findings shed light nonetheless on how people's attitudes differ toward organic foods.

The six clear groupings that Stanton's team identified through the research are:

1. Health Enthusiasts: "This group is the most committed toward the concept of organic food consumption," says Stanton. "We labeled them 'health enthusiasts' because most of what they talked about centered on health. They talked about organics being better for your body. But they still very much appreciate the environmental benefits that they perceive organics to bring about. The message about organics' environmental benefits has probably been one of the key themes in discussion of organic foods over the last couple of decades."

While scientific proof linking organics to health benefits is just beginning to surface, "many people don't really need the science -- they go by gut feelings," observes Stanton.

The health enthusiasts said they spend about half their food budget on organics. Many were in their 20s and had early-career salaries. "They were definitely concerned about the price of organics, but they're trying their best to purchase as much as they can."

2. Organic Idealists: "These people love the idea of organic food, but they are very much put off by how difficult it is to include organics in their everyday lifestyle," explains Stanton. "They feel like it's almost disingenuous to purchase just some organics, and not all."

Because this group is so time-starved (many are in dual-income households), they don't see buying organics as practical, she noted. Still, they manage to spend about 13 percent or 14 percent of grocery dollars on organics. But all in all, they're conventional grocery shoppers.

"This is a group that could be targeted by retailers," says Stanton, "but the retailers would face two hurdles: One is providing a reasonable supply and variety of goods; the other is the convenience factor. For this group, it needs to be easy to buy organics."

Organic idealists will visit their local farmers' market, she explains, because they believe they're getting something that's closer to organics than supermarket food. "Part of the appeal of organics to them is the idea that we've created an almost artificial food in our conventional production methods. So their commitment is not on the same basis as the health enthusiasts."

3. Unengaged Shoppers: The researchers refer to this group as "unengaged" because they're largely influenced by people around them in terms of the purchases they make. "They aren't engaged in what organic means; they're not all that interested," says Stanton. Still, this group spends a reasonable percentage of their grocery budget on organics -- a little less than 9 percent. They'll purchase organics because someone in their family prefers organic milk, for instance.

They'd be a harder target for grocers, notes Stanton. "They'd have to have something significant happen to decide it's worth engaging."

4. Hogwashers: Hogwashers, on the other hand, are very engaged people, according to Stanton. "They don't buy organics, though, because they think it's just a trend. There's no difference between organics and conventionally grown foods, in their minds. They think it's just someone's marketing idea."

This group consists of educated people who are strong in their opinions. "They aren't likely to be a marketing target any time soon," warns Stanton. "It would take something very personal for them to begin exploring where they might find some value in organics."

Still, "one hogwasher did buy organics because her son insisted on it," notes Stanton.

5. Bargain Shoppers: In today's economic climate, this is an important group, notes Stanton. "They represent a significant size of our sample."

This group doesn't even like the idea of organic foods, she says. "They find it to be an overpriced, inferior product. They think of tomatoes that are pockmarked and peaches that are starting to wilt. They think about produce -- they don't think about other categories in the supermarket."

Because they were at some point turned off by the look of organic produce, this has formed their opinion of organics in general, explains Stanton. "They can't imagine why anyone would not want to buy a better version for cheaper [based on the look of organics]."

Some of the people in this group are regular patrons of farmers' markets. "They felt they were doing better by buying local -- they also expected a lower price."

Not surprisingly, the members of this group spend less than 1 percent of their grocery budget on organics. To consider reaching them¸ grocers should present them with a different way of thinking about organic produce, she suggests. "You could ask them to compare organics and conventional products in a taste test."

6. Cynical/Distrustfuls: Last but not least is the "cynical/distrustful" group. "They're somewhat younger, and, like health enthusiasts, they like the idea of organics," notes Stanton. "If they knew the food was produced in a way they expected, they'd be totally committed. But they so distrust government that they don't trust labels."

These cynics spend more on organics than some of the other groups -- as much as 11 percent of their food budget. But they do it selectively and with trepidation, according to Stanton. "This is a group that would respond well to some of the same kinds of messages you'd send to health enthusiasts, but you might want to add some sort of localized, small-business angle. That distinction would be very meaningful to the cynical/distrustfuls."

Looking ahead, Stanton and her colleagues hope to discover what percentage each of these groups makes up in national samples. In addition, the groups may be broken down further if cities other than Philadelphia are examined, says Stanton.

"We were glad to see that not only are there interesting and differentiated set of groups, but they actually exhibit purchase behavior that's pretty descriptive of their attitudes," the researcher adds. "This gave us a sense that we weren't just talking about 'the organic consumer.' Before now the research was more limited, where we thought of people either consuming organics or not consuming organics."

While retailers have a clear role to play, Stanton stresses the importance of organic manufacturers in stepping up marketing and education efforts to help the industry grow even further. "One of the challenges for retailers is that they can't promote organics in a way that takes away from conventional products. It's really the organics food industry that needs to take up this banner. They're the ones who can promote themselves in a way that doesn't place the retailer in that rock-or-a-hard-place position."