Sun rises on new Web domain as organic sector growsResearch released this summer by Consumer Reports shows 45% of U.S. residents buy organic foods at least monthly, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture reporting $35 billion in organic food purchases in 2013.

That’s still only 5% of the total “at-home food sales” for 2013, according to USDA, but with a report from TechSci Research predicting annual sales growth of 14% through 2018 for organic foods, there’s good reason to believe the public’s puppy love for organics will grow into a mature affair.

Retailers such as Wal-Mart and Target are moving to cash in, both having announced in recent weeks that they plan to add more than 100 organic and “natural” products.

Wal-Mart officials said in a release that 91% of their customers would choose organic over conventional if the price differential wasn’t too large. Later this year the retailer plans to launch an organic private label, Wild Oats, which will save consumers 25% compared to other organic products according to the release.

New domain name

With such moves expected to increase crowding in the produce aisle, growers and shippers face increasing difficulty when it comes to marketing. One option is to rebrand their websites using the new domain name “organic” instead of com or net.

The new organic domain — or extension — is one of more than 175 new generic top-level domains recently introduced by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, Marina del Ray, Calif. Until 2013, there were only 22 domains, with the best know including com, net, org and edu.

Afilias Limited, an Irish registry services company with its subsidiary Afilias USA Inc. based near Philadelphia, is handling the new organic domain. Only certified organic producers and marketers and organic trade associations will be allowed to use the domain.

“With this control in place, the ‘.organic domain’ will reduce consumer confusion by providing a dedicated, protected place on the Internet for bona fide organic products and services,” said Vance Hedderel, corporate communications director for Afilias.

A “sunrise period” is in effect until Sept. 15 when the domain will become generally available, said Roland LaPlante, Afilias senior vice president.

During the sunrise period, only those who have registrations in the ICANN-designated Trademark Clearinghouse can stake a claim on the organic domain. The clearinghouse is a centralized database of verified trademarks.

“We expect very limited registrations for ‘.organic’ during the one-month sunrise period. That’s due to very low awareness in the organic community about new top-level domains. We know they don’t regularly track tech subjects like this,” LaPlante said.

Trademark protection

Legal experts and produce industry insiders said growers and shippers should proceed with caution when it comes to the new organic domain. Technical issues such as redirecting consumers from existing websites with other domain addresses are not, however, the problem.

Known as an early adopter of technology in general, HarvestMark founder Elliott Grant said the new organic domain could be beneficial.

“In my opinion, the value of these new domains is mixed,” Grant said.

“The most valuable extensions are obviously .com — but they’re largely taken. Some might be interesting, such as whoever grabs www.lettuce.organic, but any brand name is obviously going to be the property of the brand owner.”

Attorney David Oberdick of the Pittsburgh, Pa., law firm Meyer, Unkovic & Scott, specializes in trademark law. In a blog for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Oberdick wrote that the new domain could be a trademark headache for companies.

“Many companies find, however, that second-level domains related to their trademarks have already been taken by ‘cybersquatters,’ which are third parties that snap up domain names related to popular companies or brands. To defend their trademark, companies must pay off the cybersquatters, file a lawsuit or initiate a domain name dispute with ICANN,” Oberdick’s blog states.

“Companies that don’t defend their trademarks risk losing the ability to protect them. Even if a company has no intention of using a domain name related to its brand name, allowing someone else to own and use the domain name could cost the company its trademark protection.”