Pamela Riemenschneider, Retail Editor
Pamela Riemenschneider, Retail Editor

CHICAGO — If only the audio guys at conventions were able to add sound effects to presentations. I’d have added one of those screeeech record scratch-type noises when our Midwest Produce Expo consumer panel participants told me they don’t really shop for local produce.

And they don’t really shop for organics, either.

Say what?

I was certainly stumped, and there went two whole lines of questioning.

Who were these people, anyway?

Like any panel screening, we pulled from multiple demographics trying to get a good representation of age, income, household size and gender. We also had a mix of suburban and city dwellers.

So what’s going on that these folks aren’t following all the national trends about consumers being in love with local and organic produce consumption continuing to grow at a steady clip?

I think the biggest clue came when we were talking about what attracts these shoppers to their purchases:


Even six years after the start of the last big recession, consumers still are sensitive to price fluctuations, and recently with food it seems to them that all they’re seeing are higher prices at the grocery store.

These consumers were channel hoppers, cherry picking the best produce for the best values in the stores they frequent.

They’re also a bit shaken up over the past year as a longtime player in their market, Safeway-owned Dominick’s, was picked apart by other local retailers with the remaining stores closed.

Several of our panelists were Dominick’s shoppers, and in the green room before our session, they told me they were having a hard time finding a replacement.

As an outsider, I see Chicago as a vibrant retail environment with so many players to choose from, but it was obvious that there was a lot of hometown loyalty and these people were feeling lost.

On the retail tour we got a chance to see what’s happening with former Dominick’s locations. Mariano’s, a relatively new banner from Milwaukee, Wis.-based Roundy’s, picked up several of the stores. We visited one of the former Dominick’s locations that reopened as a Mariano’s back in March.

Tim Grabar, Mariano’s group vice president of retail merchandising and store operations, met us at the store. He told us the company did a quick facelift and upgrade for the store to get it up and running, and plans to remodel it in the near future.

Bob Sheppard, a former Dominick’s employee who also is in store operations for Mariano’s, said the store was one of Dominick’s strongest performers.

We also stopped at a recently-opened Shop & Save Market in Downers Grove. This location opened last year before the Dominick’s departure, but the Chicago-based chain also picked up some new locations thanks to the sale, said produce buyer Patrick Morales, who met us for the tour.

Shop & Save presents a very different environment than Mariano’s, with each of its stores strongly focused on the ethnic populations in surrounding communities.

The retailer focuses on price and a wide range of offerings for the different demographics for each community.

The Downers Grove store offered a lot of Polish foods, with much of its signage dual language Polish and English.

One thing these stores had in common would appeal to our panelists, however. They both featured very reasonable prices. Mariano’s, for example, offered bananas for 39 cents a pound and kale for $1 a pound. Shop & Save had a special on seedless watermelons, an amazing $1.49 each, and grapes for 99 cents a pound.

We wrapped up with a stop at Strube Celery & Vegetable on the Chicago International Produce Market and a tour through the facility guided by Lisa Strube, director of finance and administration, and a lunchtime stop at Eataly.

With its high end foodie-focused selection, I don’t think Eataly would be a regular shop for our price-conscious panelists, either.

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