Consumers are cheap, but they’re willing to eat local foods – if it’s easy

The fears about possible shortages that hit the country in March were a good reminder for consumers about how food actually arrives on grocery store shelves.  |  Getty Images

Consumers want to buy locally-produced food – but for most people it has to be cheap and easy to find.

It has to be really easy to find. And as cheap as non-local food.

Those, to me, are the most apparent insights from a major survey of consumers recently conducted by Sylvain Charlebois and colleagues at Dalhousie University’s Agri-Foods Analytics Lab.

Consumers as a group, as always, are fickle and filled with contradictions.

“When deciding what fruits and vegetables to buy, 79.5 percent of Canadians are willing to pay some kind of premium for locally grown produce when grocery shopping,” says the study. “However, only one in four Canadians consider where food is grown as important. This can be called the local food paradox. Most want to pay more, but few are actively looking for opportunities to do so. Price, unsurprisingly, is the most common important factor for Canadians, with almost half citing the price of fruits and vegetables as the most important factor.”

How do you make sense of that mess of contradictions?

There are lots of interesting results, not all of them surprising, in the report. Gen-Zers are much more willing to pay a premium than Baby-Boomers. (Just wait till they have kids and face huge grocery bills . . . ) People who shop at farmers’ markets see fruits and vegetables as a less important part of their diet than people who consider them a more central part. (Are they viewing fruits and vegetables as luxury goods they can splurge on, but eat little of?) Consumers believe greenhouse-grown vegetables are just as good as field-grown produce. (If plants are grown in a greenhouse, are they “local?”)

There are a few ways to look at the results.

One is optimistic and hopeful. It sees the widespread consumer interest in and desire for locally-grown food and sees huge potential to grow from there. Maybe that desire will grow. That’s not an unreasonable expectation – if it’s a trend rather than a temporary enthusiasm. Demand will grow, driving more production and wider distribution of local foods. Today’s challenges will fade away as the industry evolves.

Another is skeptical and cynical. It sees these results as proof that consumers want lots of things, but won’t pay for them, and won’t put in any effort into getting them. It’s fine to say you want something, but if you aren’t willing to  pay up for it or move your butt to go get it, you’re just talking and it means nothing. Listening to what consumers say they want  is relatively worthless if it isn’t delved into deeply, as this survey shows.

I’d like to look at the results as a bit of both. Perhaps we can hold a skeptically optimistic viewpoint. There’s obviously demand for locally-produced foods. That demand might not be very deep, but it’s there. There’s also little willingness to pay a lot more or go to a lot of effort to get local foods. There might be a way to bring that opportunity and that challenge together. Looking at these results, it suggests to me that locally-produced foods could make a much bigger impact in Canada’s local urban markets if they were simply as affordable as ordinary food and easy to find and buy. That means there might not be a great future for boosting the size of the expensive-and-demanding local food industry (like much of what exists today), but there’s great potential for local foods that can dollar-for-dollar replace imported (even from other provinces) food that can be picked up as easily as everything else consumers are already buying.

The cost and ease issues are interrelated, because they affect each other. Small scale production tends to increase per-unit prices. Inefficient distribution adds costs and stifles demand. What if local foods could be produced and marketed to distributors  by local-focused farmers, then retailed in a way that put local foods in front of consumers and easy to put in the grocery cart? There are lots of ways to do that, from getting more local stuff onto grocery store shelves to setting up all-local indoor food stores. I’m sure people are already trying.

Go check out the report. It’s a good read.

There’s lots to ponder with this topic. And maybe some opportunities too, for farmers, retailers and consumers.



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