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Connecticut Professor Ben Campbell Comes Back To The New York Produce Show With Seminal Work On Consumer Reaction To The Marketing Of Locally Grown Produce 

Ben Campbell, Assistant Professor and Extension Economist in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics of the University of Connecticut, is a powerful reminder of the importance of the individual and, particularly, the importance that a teacher can have in the life of a student.

The involvement of the University of Connecticut with The New York Produce Show and Conference is almost wholly due to Dr. Campbell’s personal willingness to make it happen, and in so doing, he has fulfilled Connecticut’s land grant mission to disseminate knowledge while also providing opportunities for students to engage with the produce industry every year.  He is truly one of those people who make a difference.

His research has always been intriguing, and we have discussed his previous work here:

Perceptions And Misperceptions: Consumer Attitudes On Organic And Local — University Of Connecticut Study To Be Unveiled At New York Produce Show and Conference

This year Professor Campbell is pushing the research to the next level. We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out more:

Ben Campbell, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor and Extension Economist
Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics
University of Connecticut
Storrs, Connecticut




Michael Katz
Graduate Student
University of Connecticut
Storrs, Connecticut



Q: We’re excited to learn about your most recent research in your unfolding portfolio of consumer studies regarding local and organic.

In your initial presentation at The New York Produce Show, you explored consumer perceptions and misperceptions of local and organic.

Then you expounded your study on the changing roles in local and organic, and the relative willingness for consumers to pay for each.

How has your researched evolved?

A: We’re digging deeper into the local and organic concept. I am planning on presenting some of the eye-tracking work that I and a graduate student, Michael Katz, are doing. We are looking at how local and organic labeling influence the decision to purchase produce in a retail setting, while also incorporating eye-tracking technology to see how local and organic labeling catch a consumer’s eye.

Q: How do you incorporate the eye-tracking device?

A: We show people images on a computer screen and the device will tell us what you’re looking at. If I show you a local label, for example, it will tell us down to a millisecond how long it took you to see that label, how long you looked at it and how many times you fixated on it.

Q: Where are these computer screens set up?  Is this in a simulated retail setting? How do you create a realistic shopping experience?

A: What we’ve been doing is going around to farmers’ markets, retail stores and other places and showing people screen images of different produce items, like apples, blueberries and sweet corn. We experimentally change what they’re looking at in each display.

What we’re interested in finding out: Does a logo like Connecticut Grown catch your attention, and at a higher rate than, say, writing the words Connecticut crop? When you go to a retail store, sometimes you see a state logo, sometimes you see the words locally grown, sometimes it’s a USDA-certified organic label, sometimes just the word organic. Will consumers pay more for a product labeled with a logo versus a word, but also does the logo catch your attention more than words.

Q: Aren’t there myriad other factors in play as well, such as how large the logo, what other words and images appear, the type of product, how it’s packaged, how important local or organic is to the consumer, income level, etc.?

A: There is a lot of research looking at the effects of produce packaging and things like that. We standardized things throughout the displays to neutralize variables, with targeted research objectives in mind.

So the only things we’re varying really are, what the price is, is it locally grown, is it with a logo versus word form, is it grown in Connecticut, where we’re doing the study, grown in the northeast, in California, or imported from overseas. We have numerous labeling schemes that we use in the process.

To give you an example: We standardized apples into one variety, so we wouldn’t have to worry about consumer preferences there. In one instance, the only things we were citing were the price, whether it was organic, with a logo, which could be USDA-certified, or the word organic, or sustainable in the text, or no label at all.

We did a similar scheme for local, giving consumers different options of a standardized apple variety based on price, logo-versus-word format, with a choice of the Connecticut state logo or locally grown in Connecticut, one grown in the Northeast, one grown in New York, and another grown in California. There was a variety of scenarios.  

Q: From previous research as a foundation, did you have a hypothesis going into this work?

A: For me, I know people will pay more for produce grown locally. Research shows people value local products enough to invest a little bit more. What I’m caring about now is what role, if any, logo-versus-word format has on that purchase decision. Also using eye-tracking to learn, does the logo capture attention faster and hold that attention.

Q: What if the product label crosses over your defined categories?

A: We just said it had to have one. So it may say this product is organic, grown in Connecticut, and the next item could be grown in Connecticut, but no organic listed. We don’t have local and organic in the same category. However, with our eye-tracking device, if someone sees the logo faster than the word, we will get a sense of order and information down to the millisecond level.

Q: That must accumulate to a lot of milliseconds in data collection!

A: It’s really interesting technology. If you look at a picture for 10 seconds, that’s 10,000 milliseconds, so imagine how much data we get! We’re still working through all the data from our eye-tracking research.

Q: Who participated in the study, and how did you recruit them?  Did you randomly pull out consumers walking in the farmers’ markets and supermarkets and ask if they wanted to volunteer?  Would the computerized technology or the novelty of the research study create bias on who participated and what answers they gave?

A: We’re recruiting consumers who are in a food shopping situation, to a controlled area, where we have computers set up on a table. We say, hey, we have a survey. We’ll pay you money to sit down and do the survey, looking at the computer screen. Sometimes we’re in a farmer’s market, sometimes we’re in a grocery store, and sometimes we have people come to an extension center.

Q: Have you broken down data by demographics, age, etc.?

A: We have in a way. We’re starting to do modeling now, and are seeing some things happening. I’ll be able to share some of these results during my talk at the New York Produce Show.

Q: Could you give us a preview?

A: It’s really interesting to see what’s going on in the marketplace. For example, what we see with age… older consumers in general didn’t like the word organic compared to younger consumers. However, it’s not as simple as one-size-fits-all. Results are varied depending on the product.  We had four products  three fruits and vegetables and one plant — blueberries, apples and sweet corn, and impatiens.

If we look at sweet corn, the local logo and local word were interchangeable, and the same can be said for organic sweet corn. However, for organic sweet corn, people cared much more about the organic logo and the organic word, and they were willing to pay a higher premium for the organic than non-organic, and a higher premium than the local premium.

There was a clear difference with apples.  People would pay roughly the same for organic and local apples, but the local logo was more important than the words locally grown in Connecticut.  

Q: It sounds like there are a lot of details to sort through to understand statistical relevance.  Could you share some key findings?

A: By and large, for local products, the logo did better pay-wise than the words. For organic, the logo and words performed the same. Generally, logo and words are interchangeable for organic, and logo is more important than words for local. Blueberries were a good example of this. For blueberries, participants tended to like the Connecticut-grown logo for local. The logo did better than words for local. But the logo did no better than words for organic.

We’re seeing differences in demographics, which is fascinating. For example, with blueberries, females like words more with organic than males. And for sweet corn, the higher one’s income, the more likely they are to prefer the logo over the words.

We’re just at the tip of the iceberg of what we can learn. We’re going through all the eye-tracking data and analyzing it.  During the talk we’ll present some of our results and showcase what people are really looking at.

Q: Will you be able to demonstrate how this eye-tracking technology works?

A: As part of the talk, we’ll show a heat map, LINK TO HEAT MAP IMAGE HERE so attendees can see this technology and how people look at different products.

Have you ever watched that TV show, “Cops”?

Someone is running away from the police and a helicopter is tracking his movements, through thermal imaging; the person is running and he’s hot, so he shows up red in the dark. The heat map is similar. Where are people focusing their visualization? What are they looking at, and for how long? As you move away from that red hot spot, it will get yellow as they have less interest.

Q: Where are you in analyzing all the data? Have you formulated some conclusions?

A: We’re getting there and still running the results. Higher income consumers may have more confidence in state government saying something is local or not, which fits with their preference for a state logo and not liking words.  As far as organic, generally we see committed organic consumers want to be sure the product is authentic, so if shown a handwritten word on a label saying it’s organic, they may be more skeptical and doubt it. They want to see that certified seal.

Q: What can attendees make of all this information? 

A: Not only does it matter if you label product organic, but also how you do it.  People see and treat logos and words differently. With eye-tracking, we can shed light on this. If a produce company knows that the consumer they’re targeting sees and prefers logos to words; that can be important marketing information. 

When you’re selling something in a crowded retail space, if people see it, they’re more likely to buy it. But further, how do consumers’ buying decisions fit with your product label? It could make a huge difference on how companies market and package products.

My guess from our initial findings is that a logo catches attention faster and holds the consumer’s attention longer, which is a way to sell more product.

A preponderance of evidence suggests the majority of people will pick local over non-local, and some people will pay more for it, so how do you capitalize on that? Most people, including myself, will say they’re not going to buy organic over non organic unless it’s the same or relatively similar price.  

In Connecticut, or other states, if you want to increase locally grown, how do you get people to stop and see it and buy it?  Which of these methods is the best way? Is it through logo or text? How do you best capture and hold consumers’ attention?

Q: Doesn’t it make a difference if the retailer builds a huge local produce display with festive wooden bins and friendly pictures of local farmers? Couldn’t that type of merchandising have an impact far outweighing whether the product has a logo or words? Isn’t that important to incorporate into your data gathering?

A: Yes, that’s correct. Some grocery stores do have the farmer signage and things like that. But in general, you go to a grocery store and what you see is a sign that says local or a local logo, or a sign that says organic, or an organic logo, and that’s what we’re trying to simulate. Of course, if you go to a farmer’s market, everything is local. The consumer is making a conscious decision to go there, so already has the mentality of someone dedicated to local.

What we’re showing in the eye-tracking scenarios is what that person would see in a conventional grocery store. Will a local logo or words make a difference in a farmer’s market? Probably not. We go to a farmers’ market to get consumers with the mentality of shopping local, to find out what would catch their attention in a mainstream supermarket. 

If we show you these scenes in a grocery store, what would you buy? And then we go to grocery stores and other settings to get different consumer perspectives. The next thing is seeing if there’s a difference with shopping at different outlets and also looking at different valuations of different products. The rest will be revealed at the Show!


What we love about this research is that it is an attempt to move the industry beyond mere speculation or “gut instinct” to what would actually work.

At the same time, we read this and our first instinct is to say someone has to give this guy a grant, because what is really needed is to move the research into the real world. It is not very difficult: You make an arrangement with a store and have three displays of the same variety of local apples — one is not labeled local, one says local with signage, and one has a logo. Or, perhaps, use three different supermarkets controlled to be demographically similar and assign each one a certain type of display. What actually happens to sales?

We also think there is a need for longer term research. For example, Professor Campbell states the following:

“A preponderance of evidence suggests the majority of people will pick local over non-local, and some people will pay more for it, so how do you capitalize on that?”

One thing is that, because of the varied definition of local, we are not sure what this really means. For example, we did many focus groups in the United Kingdom down by the English Channel, and it was very clear that the vast majority wanted local – they even waxed poetic on carbon footprints and food miles. But when we asked the obvious question — “So would you like to see a lot more produce from just over the English Channel in France as that would reduce the food miles and carbon footprint?” — the answer was a resounding no; in fact they would rather have produce from the hinterlands of Scotland 800 miles away than French produce. Local, to them, meant British. It was a political statement.

Not surprisingly, this is roughly in accordance with what 30 years of study on state programs have shown – they are effective in the state, but not outside the state. In other words, there is evidence that Jersey Fresh motivates consumers in New Jersey, but evidence that Connecticut consumers are moved by Jersey Fresh because it is more “local” than “California Grown” is scant indeed.

This is problematic because it could pit states in a beggar-thy-neighbor battle that does not increase total produce consumption.

Even if we came to an acceptable definition, we still have to distinguish between trial and continued purchase. Let us posit that local has an edge in trial. How does it work out over the long term? After all, in this experiment, the professor is controlling for things such as varietal differences, but one powerful reason to reach outside one’s region is because one wants varieties that don’t grow well locally.

There is a lot to discuss about this research and the next stage.

Come be a part of that discussion at The New York Produce Show and Conference. You can register right here.

Look forward to seeing you in New York.


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