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Hunting the health food shopper

by Bill Romania , 05.02.2015

A growing number of Americans are hungry for good health. They try to eat right – and, in many cases, exercise environmental responsibility at the same time. To satisfy these customers, food stores are adding organic, fresh and local fare. The percentage of U.S. adults who regularly eat organic food has jumped 10 points from 29% to 39% since 2007, according to GfK MRI’s Survey of the American Consumer®. In the past three years, we have also seen growing interest in buying locally produced food and eating fresh.

Two chains have emerged as leaders in aligning food shopping with the interests of healthy, sophisticated consumers: Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. Whole Foods is a “go to” source for organic, nutritious, environmentally responsible groceries and prepared foods, and gives special attention to customer service and an upscale – yet trendy – enjoyable shopping and dining experience. Trader Joe’s provides a well-curated, fun place to shop, with great customer service and a high-value, low-price model centered on their private label items.

GfK MRI data show that Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s customers are more likely than typical adults to look for healthy and environmentally sustainable items when shopping. And, compared to three years ago, the proportion of consumers visiting Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s at least once a month has grown (2014 – 13% 2011 – 10%). The retailers also share customers: 30% of Trader Joe’s customers shop at Whole Foods and 42% of Whole Foods’ customers shop at Trader Joe’s.

But can these thriving stores – and successful brands – find more ways to appeal to today’s healthy, environmentally conscious consumers? GfK MRI insights into shopper attitudes toward food, health, and the environment may help them do their work even better – and suggest ways that the two shopping heavyweights might learn a thing or two from each other.

For example, Whole Foods’ current campaign communicating the nutritional content of food, how and where it is produced, and its environmental impact is perfectly aligned with the interests of the chain’s customers. Trader Joe’s might boost customer satisfaction by adopting some of Whole Foods’ transparency activities – their shoppers are similarly interested in the same issues as Whole Foods customers. GfK MRI data shed light on some of those issues:

What customers say about food

Almost all of Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods’ customers think “healthy” when they shop for food. The vast majority relies on product labels and puts a premium on buying local products.

  • I try to eat healthy these days and pay attention to my nutrition.
    (All Adults – 82%; Trader Joe’s – 92%; Whole Foods – 93%)
  • I rely on product labels to help me make decisions when food shopping.
    (All Adults – 64%; Trader Joe’s – 75%; Whole Foods – 76%)
  • I try to buy foods that are grown or produced locally (in the region where I live).
    (All Adults – 67%; Trader Joe’s – 75%; Whole Foods – 77%)
  • I prefer cooking with fresh food rather than canned or frozen.
    (All Adults – 78%; Trader Joe’s – 88%; Whole Foods – 88%)
  • I regularly eat organic foods.
    (All Adults – 39%; Trader Joe’s – 55%; Whole Foods – 64%)
  • I buy natural products because I am concerned about my family’s health.
    (All Adults – 55%; Trader Joe’s – 67%; Whole Foods 72%)

Whole Foods is launching innovative programs that speak to these interests. It has introduced an interactive wall of windowpanes in its Atlanta store that allows shoppers to learn about the lives of local farmers and food producers.

Other Whole Foods locations, like the store in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, have signage on their food bars noting items that are “Leafy Greens & Colorful Vegetables,” “Whole Grain, Starchy Vegetables,” and “Lean Meat, Poultry, Fish, Legumes and Nuts.” That information is valuable — but why not add more specifics about the nutritional content of each?

Trader Joe’s popular Fearless Flyer introduces new items. With a little more ink, the chain could take a page from the Whole Foods book and give consumers a lot more information about nutritional content. It also could highlight environmental sustainability practices that relate to certain products.

What customers say about the environment

Shoppers of both stores see themselves as more environmentally aware than typical adults. They want to learn about ways they can help the environment, and they are willing to pay premiums for “green” products.

  • I am interested in finding out how I can help the environment.
    (All Adults – 66%;Trader Joe’s – 73%; Whole Foods – 76%)
  • I feel I am more environmentally conscious than most people.
    (All Adults – 46%; Trader Joe’s – 56%; Whole Foods – 59%)
  • A company’s environmental record is important to me in my purchasing decisions.
    (All Adults – 48%; Trader Joe’s – 56%; Whole Foods – 60%)
  • I am willing to pay more for a product that is environmentally safe.
    (All Adults – 54%; Trader Joe’s – 65%; Whole Foods – 70%)
    Note: Even though these shoppers say they will pay premiums for sustainable items, they still want good prices: 60% of Trader Joe’s and 56% of Whole Foods customers say that their favorite grocery store offers low prices on all products every day.

Whole Foods Market is making strides in sustainability, too. It recently announced a color-coded ratings system for flowers, fruits and vegetables. This campaign is part of the retailer’s drive to reward responsible farmers while discouraging pesticide use and promoting GMO transparency.

Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods customers want to buy healthy food and help the environment. They get a lot of what they want when they visit those brands. But in the food store business, just like every other sector, there is always room to introduce innovative programs that make customers happier, smarter and, in this case, healthier than they already are. The challenge will be for grocery retailers to innovate in this space while remaining true to their brands and the experiences their shoppers expect.

For more information, please contact Bill Romania at bill.romania@gfk.com.

This article originally appeared in ProgressiveGrocer.com.

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