Understanding consumer demand

January 17, 2008
Written by Joel Ceausu
20February in Boucherville means the Semaine Horticole is in town, and hundreds of Québec growers flock to hear speakers talk about everything from on-site farm sales to marketing efforts.

Caroline Thibault of Québec’s Union of Agricultural Producers spoke about promotional efforts.

Thibault, a marketing agent and director-general of the Quebec Association of Strawberry and Raspberry Producers, assured attendees that when it comes to marketing, half the effort is in the planning. “Don’t get started until you know what your niche is, your products and potential capacity. Who are your customers and what do they want?”

Don’t fall into the price trap, she said, “when the key is really to distinguish your product or yourself in the market.” With berries, she said, “price is the motivating factor for only about 40 per cent of consumers when making a purchase, followed by freshness, taste and store loyalty.”

The lesson? “Fruit and vegetable buyers are fickle, and if prices are similar, they will seek out differentiation.”

When launching a promotion, time it right. “Is it the beginning of your season, or are you launching a new product? There is a difference.” So target your clientele, then differentiate yourself from the pack with innovations and customer service, she said. “Stay on top of trends, train your employees, refresh your mailing lists, and try to be avant-garde.” To do that, she said, keep in mind the five key elements of consumer demand:

Pleasure
n Food should be enjoyable, and more than ever, people are looking for more sophistication and more variety in their diets. “Exotic, foreign tastes are big,” she said.

Certainly south of the border, the largest trend influencing food retailing and food service is the growing popularity of Hispanic foods and flavours. Is there room for growth here?

Less dependence on meals that require many pots and pans and too much preparation and cleaning means cooking can be easy and less of a chore. At home, slow cookers and grilling will prevail beyond seasonal use, favouring prepared vegetables for stew mixes and larger items like peppers for grilling. Innovative new products can easily elicit a positive response. “Like different colours of carrots and tomatoes, new items attract the consumer’s attention and have immense shelf appeal.”

Health
nFrom natural ingredients and vegetarian dishes, to rediscovering the nutritious value of old favourites, consumers are increasingly choosing healthy meals. Whether it is checking levels of fibre, fat, omega-3, sugar or salt, North Americans are reading labels like never before, and with Canada allowing several health claims on food packages, producers can increase sales by relating such benefits, helping them recoup costs.

Last year Canadians consumed 40.5 kg of fresh vegetables per capita. Why should oranges get all the attention? Trumpet the high vitamin content of peppers! A small serving of strawberries offers almost as much vital folic acid as a serving of broccoli. With greenhouse strawberries available in many markets, consumers are willing to pay a premium for healthy, delicious fruit in what they consider “off season.”

Appearance
n “Slim, energetic, a sense of well-being: all themes that are increasingly associated with food and lifestyle.” If Canadians are still dieting in droves, rather than focus on the diet fad of the week, bring attention to the very real benefits of healthy eating. Highlight the overall positive glow of healthy people, using healthful images and attractive packaging. Beautifully packaged lettuce can pull the eyes away from a heap of cellophane and soggy leaves.

Combination packs of different coloured peppers are attractive and enticing, and colourful, uniform, and easy-to-read herb packages are taking off in popularity. (Consider the success of cosmetics, where the similarity of most products is only distinguished by the packaging and marketing, which determines a product’s popularity and vastly influences the price consumers are willing to pay.)

Portability
n A dominant factor at retail for many products, convenience-tailored to our almost “nomadic lifestyle” means timesaving and a willingness to pay a premium, says Thibault. “Look at the success of the Savoura (Québec-based St. Laurent Greenhouses) product line,” which includes bruschetta and pasta sauce kits – smartly packaged tomatoes with pre-measured spices and recipes. Other kit ideas include pickles with cukes and spices, carrot cake with carrots and flour, red pepper dips … the possibilities are endless.

Simplicity always has big appeal. The 7-11 store chain has introduced new lines of “better-for-you” foods that include snack cups of fruits and veggies sized to fit a car’s cupholders. Portion control will be a continuing trend, with foods offered in easily measured 100-calorie packs taking up more space at retail.

Ethics
n Consumers want to encourage environmental stewardship. Be at the forefront, and let your clients know about any positive endeavours in sourcing, labour and ecology. With repeated public food illness scares, and people feeling more alienated than ever from their food supply, there is a definite increase in the interest of buying local, both for food safety concerns and supporting the local economy. A minimal
environmental footprint is also noteworthy, in both packaging and modes of production. If you are using recycled energy or materials, talk about it, using your packaging and marketing materials to communicate your message.

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