Consumers want what they want, and it is up to the food marketers and retailers to figure out if what consumers say they want is actually what they will buy. 
 
Consumer surveys about online shopping, genetically modified organisms, local food, organic produce, et cetera — can you take anything from those polls to the bank?
 
The third annual Forbes AgTech Summit had a top-notch retail panel on June 29 (“Retail Disruption: Changing Path to the Consumer) that included Heather Shavey, assistant vice president and general merchandising manager for Issaquah, Wash.-based Costco Wholesale; Bruce Taylor, founder and CEO of Taylor Farms, Salinas, Calif.; and Mike Teel, owner and CEO of Raley’s Inc., West Sacramento, Calif.
 
Trying to predict consumer responses based on surveys is not possible, the panelists said.
 
Teel said Raley’s consumers indicated their aspirations are to spend 20 to 30 minutes preparing dinner for their children and then have a conversation with their kids at the dinner table. 
 
“We said great. Let’s have a meal kit that takes 20 to 30 minutes to prepare, and it will be a home run,” he said. “It didn’t work.”
 
A time-pressed consumer finds it easier to push the microwave button, he said. 
 
“Aspirations are one thing, and reality is another,” he said.
 

Consumers want what they want, and it is up to the food marketers and retailers to figure out if what consumers say they want is actually what they will buy. 

 
Drawing laughs, Taylor said the company throws “stuff” out there to see what works, rather than trying to guess what the consumer wants based on surveys.
 
Another line of questioning talked about communicating the values of a company to its customers. Whether or not “company values” are important to all consumers, connecting consumers to growers and providing transparency at the retail level is essential, panelists agreed. 
 
Taylor Farms uses its website to communicate to consumers and works to personalize the connection between the company’s many dozens of growers to consumers. 
 
Shavey said Costco believes packaging is the most crucial piece to educate consumers, but the company also uses social media, their websites and their suppliers’ websites.
 
In a glance to the future, Taylor said a pivotal challenge is automation.
 
“We have now automated romaine harvesting, spinach harvesting, spring mix harvesting, celery harvesting, cabbage, and we are going to figure out lettuce,” he said. “We are going to have to figure out how to grow those plants with fewer folks who are better trained and have better jobs.
 
“That’s what we want for our state and our country, and so we are going to transform an ag workforce from a very difficult and unpleasant job to a much more sophisticated job, and that’s the goal,” Taylor said.
 
For all their shrugs and protests about the unpredictable consumer, the combined industry knowledge of Taylor, Teel and Shavey makes me believe their guesses about the future are better than just about anybody else.
 
Tom Karst is The Packer’s national editor. E-mail him at tkarst@farmjournal.com.
 
What's your take? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.
 
Comments