With more than half of organic food sales having been made in so-called “mainstream grocers, club stores and retailers,” in 2009, the category is expanding its audience, according to the Organic Trade Association.
Educated families appear to be among the steadiest demographic category of organic consumers, according to the OTA, which released a study that reported 41% of parents said in 2009 they were buying more organic foods than a year earlier. According to s similar survey in 2008, 31% of parents said they had increased organic purchases.
“Demographically, a lot of people are young parents that are buying,” said Barbara Haumann, spokeswoman for the OTA. “What it shows is it’s not so much demographics — it’s more the level of education than income levels. In other words, if people are choosing organics, they either have more education or have wider view on the world, i.e. the connectedness on what you purchase and how it affects your family and the wider world.”
David Lively, marketing director at Eugene, Ore.-based Organically Grown Co., agreed.
“I know retailers like Whole Foods and New Seasons (Market) say the No. 1 demographic they look for in deciding where to put a store is education,” Lively said. “They appeal to people who want a lot of information, where it comes from, how it got there.”
The OTA also reported more consumers were looking for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s organic seal, and that 70% of parents overall and 90% of organic buyers specifically are familiar with the USDA Organic seal, which was up “significantly” over levels of familiarity reported a year earlier.
The growth of the organic fruit and vegetable category and consumer familiarity with it should come as no surprise, said Chris Smotherman, a salesman with Kern Ridge Growers LLC, Arvin, Calif.
“They’ve been around a bit longer, so they’re getting more exposure, and more people are taking a look at them and buying them,” Smotherman said. “Before, it was just those who were ultra-health-conscious that were buying them. Now, some people who go to the store who aren’t particularly health-conscious may buy them if they’re priced well.”
The OTA’s findings about who buys organics appear to be on the mark, according to Craig Hope, chief customer officer for Earthbound Farm, San Juan Bautista, Calif.
“We’re seeing the demographic profile of the shopper who chooses organic to be pretty steady,” he said. “They tend to be younger, having grown up in a time when organic was more mainstream than too crunchy. And the biggest determiner has been and still seems to be level of education.”
Suzanne Wolter, marketing director for Rainier Fruit Co., Selah, Wash., cited a 2009 Perishables Group Inc. study that found organic apple consumers also were purchasing conventional apples.
“Organic apples present a trade-up opportunity for conventional apple shoppers,” Wolter said. “Growth is coming from ‘light’ organic buyers who are driven by impulse.”
Organic shoppers likely comprise a broader group than many people think, said Simcha Weinstein, marketing director for Albert’s Organics, Bridgeport, N.J.
“The industry is often broad-stroked and portrayed as white, affluent, well-educated, liberal-leaning, between 35 and 55, and predominantly female. These profiles simply don’t hold up,” he said. “People who buy organic foods are linked by their values and not by their demographics.”
Weinstein said it has become more difficult to identify the organic consumer in a diversified population.
“The demographic group purchasing organic foods that has grown the most in the past 10 years has been within the Hispanic community,” he said. “The idea that organic and natural foods are consumed mostly by white affluent suburbanites is quickly changing.”
As children of the baby boom generation have come of age, having grown up eating organic foods, a younger demographic of organic consumers has emerged, as well, Weinstein noted.
A parade of mainstream retailers carrying organic produce has been there to meet the needs of those demographics, said Ron Carkoski, president of Four Seasons Produce, Ephrata, Pa.
“We’ve had a significant influx of health food stores that have joined our ranks in terms of buying products, but we’ve also continued to strengthen with independent retailers who are conventional but are expanding organic sales,” he said.
“We continue to deal with chains that have brought on fairly strong chain business — chains that people would recognize well. It seems to me all categories that are working with organics seem to be in this marketplace growing and being successful.”