A Specialty Food Mystery

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They say that familiarity breeds contempt. But in the case of ethnic, gourmet, or organic foods, familiarity could be breeding something else: A minor case of amnesia. In 1999, 75 percent of consumers said that their supermarket offered gourmet, ethnic, or specialty foods, but only 66 percent said that their supermarket did so in 2000. The percentage of folks who said their supermarket carried natural or organic foods experienced a similar drop: From 73 percent in 1999 to 67 percent in 2000, according to "Trends in the United States: Consumers Attitudes and the Supermarket, 2000," a report from the Food Marketing Institute in Washington D.C.

Does this mean that retailers are turning away from ethnic, gourmet, or organic foods? Not at all, says Kai Robertson, senior manager of research at the Food Marketing Institute. "These are self-reported numbers, they're based on consumer recollection," she points out. "The number of consumers that say they purchase these products is quite high." An impressive 54 percent of consumers say they bought organic food in the last month, and 52 percent say that they've purchased ethnic or gourmet foods - similar percentages to 1999.

So what's going on? According to Robertson, these numbers reflect a "mainstreaming effect." As consumers become more comfortable including foods like couscous or organic portobello mushrooms on their regular menu, they stop distinguishing these products from their Rice-A-Roni and Wonder Bread. "Think of something like salsa. Years ago it was an ethnic food. Yogurt was a natural food, now it's just a dairy item," she points out. As consumers make ethnic or organic foods staples in their diet, it all begins to blur.

But that's not the only possible explanation for supermarket shoppers' memory loss. For example, consumers may be looking to specialty stores to scratch their gourmet, organic, or ethnic itch. The percentage of Americans who say they steer their shopping carts to only one supermarket each month, fell from 46 percent in 1996 to 39 percent of shoppers in 2000. According to 22 percent, that's because other stores offer more variety, a better assortment, or more choice in food products.

Increased price consciousness is another possibility. Of the number of shoppers who buy groceries in more than one store, 44 percent say that it's because they're searching for a better price. Price-conscious consumers may not have even ventured down the gourmet, ethnic, or organic aisle. Price was a very important factor in grocery selection to 69 percent of consumers, up from 63 percent last year.

At the same time, the importance of taste has diminished, which could hurt the memorability of gourmet food. The percentage of consumers who ranked taste as a very important factor in food choice declined 4 percentage points to 89 percent between 1999 and 2000. Concern about nutrition is also on a sharp downward trend, which would tend to make organic or natural foods forgettable: Four years ago, 58 percent of consumers said they were very concerned about nutrition. Today, only 46 percent of consumers worry about the nutritional content of what they eat. Familiarity might breed contempt, but shoppers certainly aren't going to remember seeing what doesn't matter to them.

For more information, contact the Food Marketing Institute at (202) 429-4519 or visit www.fmi.org.

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