Farmers Markets: A “Fresh” Option in a Digital World
From the groundbreaking insights in our Are there really “too many farmers markets,” as a recent story on National Public Radio and the three-part series by the Farmers Market Coalition posited and then debated? The USDA estimates that nationwide the number of farmers markets increased from 2,000 in 1994 to more than 8,600 in 2019, but from our vantage point, the question isn’t about the number of farmers markets but rather farmers markets’ resonance and relevance with today’s consumers’ shopping and eating behaviors.
Competition for food shoppers is fierce. Several years ago, we coined the term “the roadside pantry effect,” the idea that “food is everywhere” and consumers now navigate a world of 360-degree food availability, picking and choosing from a huge pantry of immediately accessible as well as virtual options. In this contemporary digital age, farmers markets are a unique option and offer a compelling distinction that few large-scale retailers — brick and mortar or online — can compete against.
We’ve long championed the position that fresh, less processed is but one part of a larger cultural trend toward the redefinition of food quality, which includes drivers like more distinctive ingredients and flavors, local, seasonal, artisanal and so forth. These are attributes that farmers markets are already well positioned in consumers’ mindsets as a prime source. Consumers look to local channels, including farmers markets, butchers, fish markets and CSAs, for all fresh food categories (including produce, meat, dairy and bread). Our Food Shopping in America 2017 report finds that 19% of shoppers said they visited a farmers market, CSA, butcher or fish market in the past 30 days. They made an average of 1.7 visits a month to these outlets.
Often people speak of Alice Waters as one of the leading lights of the fresh, less processed trend as well as the resulting cultural shift that encompassed it. Utilizing her now-famous Chez Panisse restaurant as a springboard, Waters pioneered — and politicized — a new way of thinking about food that chose as its motif the romance of an imagined, premodern past.
At first glance, the spoils of Waters’ victory can be found in the many thousands of food trucks and farmers markets that are now embedded in our food culture — and in the many millions of consumers who now desire, demand and seek foods that are fresh and “local.”
The “Local” Connection
With their connotations of local, community and environmental stewardship, farmers markets offer compelling narratives that include small-scale production and closer, reciprocal relationships with food producers.
Consumers believe in the integrity of local producers and small farmers, seeing them as deeply invested in the quality of their products. Their trust is bolstered by the close proximity of local food sources, which translates into shorter distances traveled — and thus a perception of greater freshness. They like keeping their money in the community and the idea that they are eating food that’s in season.
Local and organic are cues of higher quality and primary drivers in consumer demand for fresh foods.
According to our Organic & Natural 2018 report, consumers who buy organics (85% of households) do so because they envision growing practices associated with an absence of chemicals and with humane treatment of animals, and 39% of consumers report buying more local products compared to a year earlier. They are also driven by strong romanticized notions of the moral ideals of farming. This idealization of farming stems from the fact that though a majority of “modern” consumers are fundamentally disconnected from food production, they retain a highly idealized picture of how they would like their food to be produced.
Our Health + Wellness 2019 report finds that when shopping, in general, consumers look for foods and beverages that are locally grown or produced (69%), are labeled organic (53%) and are cooperatively produced (46%).
Consumers are engaging with a complex and dynamic food culture. Just as other food channels are encountering disruption at every turn, farmers markets will need to adapt and demonstrate alignment with consumer values around organic and local foods.
At the highest level, organic means “grown naturally, made simply, and made responsibly.” The meaning of local continues to evolve and suggests a range of product attributes that include shared values and trust, smaller-scale production, support of the local economy, and freshness and seasonality. Farmers markets should ensure that marketing language reflects these basic premises, at a minimum.
As today’s consumers continue to prioritize fresh, real food that does not contain artificial ingredients and other perceived negatives, farmers markets and their products intersect with many aspects of sustainability. One key aspect of sustainability is the importance of narrative. Consumers want to know about the products they purchase. The want to know what’s in it, where it’s from, how it was made and who made it. A narrative provides the “connective tissue” between the facts, data points and attributes.
Farmers markets will need to adapt and reflect changes in consumer eating and shopping behavior. Just as with shopping, eating behavior is changing. The boundary between eating meals and snacks is blurring — 91% of consumers say they snack multiple times throughout the day. Snacking is essential to most Americans’ daily eating and accounts for 50% of all eating occasions. Farmers markets should appeal to current shopping/eating behavior by messaging and product offerings that reflect consumer desire to snack more.