Organic food

The public interest in organic food offers a major opportunity for hard-pressed supermarkets – and in-store communications are one of their most effective weapons.

New research from NOP indicates that organic food, for so long one of the most unsuccessful food markets, may be experiencing a boom.

Seventy-eight per cent of the adult population claimed to take some interest in the increasing availability and publicity of food grown without pesticides, herbicides or artificial fertilisers; and exactly half – the equivalent of 22.5 million people – were very or quite interested.

Unusually for a food market, levels of interest vary very little across the three main geographical regions of the country and there is no diff-erence between men and women. Interest dips among the under-25s and the over-55s, but they are generally less involved in large-scale food purchase.

Although strong interest is more prevalent among upmarket consumers, the imbalance is relatively slight: 55 per cent of ABC1s are very or quite interested, compared with 46 per cent of C2DEs.

Buying organic food

Interest in organic food is being translated into purchase. Three out of ten adults – more than half the number who showed real interest – have bought some organic food in the past three months.

Men continue to play a strong role in the market, forming an unusually large proportion – 45 per cent – of buyers. But the gap between expressed interest and actual purchase widened when NOP looked at the social class and regionality of buyers.

The more prosperous the household, the more likely people are to pay the premium associated with most organic food. Four out of ten ABs, and 35 per cent of C1s have actually bought organic food, compared with 28 per cent of C2s and only a fifth of DEs.

Although there was no difference in interest between the regions, only 25 per cent of Northern consumers have bought organic, versus 30 per cent in the Midlands and 36 per cent in the South.

Money is the main reason for not buying organic food. Forty-six per cent of non-buyers claimed that expense was a major factor in their rejection, and this feeling showed little variation across regions and social classes. But lack of availability is a major factor for twice as many Northerners as Southern ers, indicating an under-exploited opportunity.

Products in most of the main food sectors had some representation in NOP’s purchasing index, but fruit and vegetables are the focus of attraction. Just over a quarter of the population have bought organic fruit or vegetables in the past three months; 73 per cent of organic food buyers have bought vegetables, almost twice as many as organic fruit-buyers. One in ten had bought organic meat or poultry; none of the other sectors achieved ten per cent penetration.

Success of organic food

The popularity of organic fruit and vegetables rests on the widespread anxiety about the possibility damaging effects of pesticides and herbicides. Fifty-six per cent of buyers were very worried, and another 22 per cent were quite worried about these artificial additives to the food chain. But the foundations for packaged organic food are already laid – nearly six out of ten organic converts claim they always check the label on packaged food. Three-quarters of buyers also believe that “organic food tastes better than ordinary”, giving important reinforcement to establishing habitual purchase.

The success of organic food is probably due to its adoption by the major multiples, making it far more widely available. Eighty-four per cent of all buyers had got organic food from a supermarket, compared with 34 per cent buying from a farm shop or other local outlet, 30 per cent from a greengrocer, 17 per cent from a health food shop and ten per cent from a butcher.

Among the four major multiples, Asda has been slower to adopt the organic trend. Tesco and Sainsbury’s tie for top position – both have 27 per cent of organic shoppers doing most of their food shopping, including fruit and vegetables, in their stores. Asda and Safeway both take 12 per cent of main shoppers, although Asda’s share of all shoppers is four points higher.

Information about organic food

The public’s appetite for information about organic food is keen, and scores for media use are higher across the board than for many other sectors examined by Spotlight.

However, the power of the supermarkets to move the market is demonstrated by the ubiquity and influence of in-store communications compared with other sources of information.

Seven out of ten purchasers have benefited from a display or sample in a supermarket, and 45 per cent have read a leaflet picked up in store. Press editorial has been used by a third of buyers; both television programmes and advertisements by about a quarter. Press advertising seems less relevant in this sector, consulted by only 18 per cent of purchasers.

Market potential

The prospects for market growth seem to be bright, if the main stumbling block of price premiums can be addressed. Three-quarters of current buyers were convinced that they would buy more organic produce “if it were less expensive”; and six out of ten would definitely buy more “if it was always available”.

The majority of non-buyers also seem capable of conversion. Only four out of ten non-buyers seem to be completely impervious to its attractions, admitting: “I am not bothered by things like organic food”. There is little basic rejection of organic food per se – less than four out of ten believed that it did not look as attractive, or taste as nice as “ordinary” food.

But the majority argument for growth is the sector’s potential for switching business. A third of people who had any interest in organic food – the equivalent of a quarter of the adult population – indicated that they would change their current shopping habits if it meant they could buy more organic food.

The major multiples, continually looking for ways of increasing share in a static market, must find this attractive – and will continue to promote it relentlessly.

Main Findings

78 per cent of adults have some interest in organic food

30 per cent have bought some organic food in the past three months

36 per cent of organic buyers would change shops to get more organic food

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