A Decade of Consumer Understanding: Looking Beyond Buying Local

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The term “local” has long been identified as a quality distinction marker for food consumption as well as environmental causes. The phrase “buy local” has grown in popularity among consumers and is now a well-established catchphrase in retail and restaurant marketing messaging. The term’s definition has evolved from a narrow niche to a powerful mainstream category. What it means to today’s consumers continues to take shape as diverse meanings coalesce along the lines of food culture, health and wellness, sustainability, and organic and natural.

The fervor for “all things local” seemingly has hit its stride here in the early part of the 21st century. Local is not just about the community farmers market or roadside fruit or veggie stand; there is a much broader cultural curiosity about locally sourced goods and services that extends well beyond the world of food consumption. Of course, contemporary food scares from tainted imports, growing environmental awareness and concern, continued desire for less processed foods, and the increased demand for goods deemed to be unique, distinctive and handcrafted have elevated interest in, and given credence to, the “buy local” movement.

A decade ago, when we asked consumers how they would define “buy local,” the most common descriptions were for food products: grown close to my home and sold within my community, that are fresher because they are grown with 100 miles of me and buying products that support small businesses, such as farmers and local artisans.

More than a bridge between organic and natural, local offers a compelling narrative that resonates with many salient food trends and consumer concerns. Today, consumers motivated to “buy local” are looking for more than something that came from nearby.

Consumers continue to idealize eating locally. However, the word “local” is a misnomer, as it speaks to several things consumers value, of which literal distance/travel time is only one. As such, being truly close by is not always necessary to speak to “local” values. The following illustration depicts the dimensions of buying local that appeal to consumers.

Dimensions of buying local

Local and organic are also key factors that consumers seek when buying food and beverage products.

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As the above chart shows, local has benefits that continue to entice consumers, often exceeding organic with a more tangible quality assurance. Consumers often identify local foods as representing the pinnacle of real, fresh and minimally processed, whether or not they actively purchase them. Consumers idealize food that is as close to its natural form as possible, which typically means foods that are made simply and grown naturally.

Consumers across the board see locally sourced food and beverage as more sustainable and healthier. Our Organic & Natural 2018 report finds that 39% of consumers report buying more local products than a year ago.

Among those consumers most active in health, wellness and sustainability lifestyles (e.g., those in the “Core”), buying local puts into practice the environmental adage “think global, act local.” These Core consumers equate buying local with decreasing “food miles” (i.e., the distance that food travels), shrinking carbon footprints and supporting workers’ rights as a measure that offers greater control over food production standards. For those consumers in the Periphery of health and sustainability lifestyles, buying local is more likely to be seen as protecting the local economy and environment, and consequently one’s self and one’s family.

Local is also linked by consumers as a way to “vote with one’s dollars” in terms of supporting the local community. As one consumer told us, “It's better to pay slightly more for local organics from local businesses because if I don’t, they might go away.” This is a typical mindset among consumers who want to retain the convenience of their neighborhood grocery store while at the same time “doing something good.” While ethical consumption plays a role in some cases, for a majority of consumers the fascination with local products has as much to do with a return to values of simplicity, an equation of kindness with old-fashioned systems of hand production and, most strongly, the ability to match a product with a place or face.

Where is local most important?

Even for Core consumers who feel ideologically committed to eating locally, eating entirely local produce (let alone packaged categories) is unrealistic. Food from the local region is a higher priority in categories in which there is a known regional expertise or prominent local brand. Conversely, it is low priority in categories in which there is known expertise or optimal growing conditions elsewhere; e.g., global cuisine.

Overall, food from the local region is a nice-to-have for mainstream consumers. However, for the retailer offering it, it can demonstrate both community engagement and culinary expertise.

Compared to a decade ago, local is an even bigger deal today. Support of community and regional economics and foodways is one significant element. Local offers greater transparency and trust. Consumers believe local producers and small farmers have more integrity and are deeply invested in the quality of their products. Shorter commodity chains, smaller scales of production and proximity to the sources of their food bolster consumer trust.

We believe there is still room for local to continue to exert its influence into the foreseeable future. It’s an on-trend cue of quality with strong links to healthier, more sustainable lifestyles and gourmet food experiences. The key to marketing “buy local” remains in being transparent and authentic.

The Hartman Group’s Health + Wellness 2019, Sustainability 2019 and Organic & Natural 2018 reports provide timely insights into the contemporary consumer interpretations of “local” and the potential for converting them into marketing opportunities.