A new researcher at the New York Produce Show, Rebecca Wasserman-Olin, shared new research findings about how customers value various appearance characteristics and how a consumer value perception is affected when a strawberry is marketed as ‘local,’ among other key findings. While this work uses strawberries as an example, it provides important lessons for everyone in the fresh produce market. Wasserman-Olin, a researcher in the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University, spoke at the recent edition of the New York Produce Show and Conference. She recently spoke with Susan Crowell, contributing editor at Pundit sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS magazine, about the new research and its impact for the produce industry.
Q. You’re a new presenter at the New York Produce Show. What research highlights did you share at the event?
A. This research, which was funded by the New York State Berry Growers Association and conducted in the summer of 2019, is all related to consumer preference and consumer behavior, and understanding how customers make purchasing and especially repurchasing decisions. Purchasing is mostly just based on visual, but in this study, we were able to bring taste into it as well, which connects more to ‘would you buy it again?’
So in this study, we were able to measure how consumers value strawberries in two different ways. First, we gave them a survey, before they came to an in-person experiment, to help understand which types of strawberries they would like to buy and understand the preferences for different attributes of the strawberries themselves. Those attributes were the size, the production location, the flavor and then price. From their responses, we were able to understand a little bit about the specific attributes themselves. Then, they came in person to an experiment and we had them rate the strawberries based on just a visual, and then they also got to taste them, and then rate them again and see how much they would pay for the strawberries. First, how much would they pay just based on visual appearance, and then also in the second round, based on taste and visual. That was how we were able to understand how they value strawberries in different scenarios.
And, on top of that, we were able to understand the value of marketing a berry as “local” and incorporate that into both of the studies and understand how just using this marketing term changes the perception or preference of berries.
Q. Were there any surprises in your findings?
A. I think the one biggest surprises — which I think if you talk to a lot of New York strawberry growers, they’re probably not that surprised — but, an in-season, field-grown strawberry is extremely competitive, compared to what you traditionally see in the grocery store coming from the West Coast. Customers really love that strawberry when they knew where it was grown — it was rated really well for flavor, for color and size, with all those markers.
One of the unique things about this study was that we were also able to include a hydroponically grown strawberry grown in New York. We didn’t reveal that it was hydroponically grown and that it was a different variety of strawberry as well. But it was definitely interesting to study that for the first time and understand that they were a little bit smaller, a little bit less uniform, which customers in a blind test have a lower preference for that berry over others. But once they knew it was New York-grown, it definitely received a premium and it was more competitive compared to the California berries.
Understanding how marketing local is able to overcome some of the quality challenges that you might have in an up-and-coming system was an exciting finding from the study, and one that we hope can help the industry as it begins to grow and hone its ability to produce high-quality strawberries.
The most interesting finding for taste was that California strawberries received a lower taste rating when respondents knew where it was coming from. When the production origin was told, all three California strawberries were valued lower than when they didn’t know where they’re coming from, and the California berries were given the largest deficit from the customer. That was interesting to see, and something that we’re still kind of thinking about ourselves.
Q. So extending the season for locally grown produce merits some attention?
A. This study clearly shows the in-season, field-grown New York strawberries are extremely well received by customers, and they thought they had great flavor, great visual appearance. The challenge for the future is looking at being able to capture that premium, to help make New York strawberries competitive by extending that growing season, and understanding how the systems to farm hydroponic and aquaponic berries can be improved so they can provide a local option further away from just that short, summer season.
There are a couple of large operations investing in hydroponic and other indoor systems. I think last year was one of the first years that I noticed New York-grown berries in supermarkets during the winter and during the offseason, coming from some new operations. It’s definitely something that’s getting attention in the industry, and there’s a lot of work going on at Cornell to support these growing systems.
Q. You some interesting data for branding and marketing products as local. What role does a consumer’s interest in “buying local” play?
A. In both of the studies, we found a strong preference to purchase local — and a willingness to pay for that. We don’t, at this point, understand if they value it higher or if they perceive that they need to pay more in order to purchase local, but we know that consumers expect that when they know it’s a local product, they have the expectation that they will pay a higher price.
In our study, we had two groups and one was a control, where they didn’t know where the produce was from. The other group was told the origin location, and in that group, we saw that just knowing that something was local changed their perception of its appearance, as well as of its taste. Respondents tended to be more ‘friendly’ with New York strawberries and rated them higher, and rated Californian strawberries a bit more harshly and gave them a higher price deficit, especially when tasting the berry. We saw that ‘local’ was very important in preferences.
Q. Your research was berry-specific, but are there generalizations you can make to the broader category of fruits and vegetables in general?
A. I actually conducted similar experiments with broccoli a year before the strawberry experiments were done, and we’ve also done blueberry experiments using a similar methodology, and we find similar trends throughout. When people know that something is grown in their region, they are a little bit more friendly and will still pay for a high quality when they know it is local, even if the appearance isn’t quite up to the expectations that people have for that product. They give it a little bit more leeway when they know that something is local compared to coming out of state. We saw that in broccoli, too, and the blueberry data is still being compiled, so we look forward to understanding how it plays out in different berries as well.
Q. If I’m not a local grower or shipper, how can I use your research?
A. The first part of our research, the pre-experiment survey, looked at local, but also at specific attributes, and it was able to measure preferences for different flavors, as well as different colors and sizes. So from that research, We know that if you’re a grower from out of state, you should ensure that your berries have attributes that might make them competitive to some of the berries grown in New York. We see a preference for deep, red color, highly sweet berries that are large (or just not small). So if you’re able to capture all three of those attributes in your berries, and you’re compared to a locally grown berry, which might not be able to capture all three, you could be competitive in terms of how much a consumer will prefer your strawberry compared to another. We provided some of that information — the general quality preferences when it comes to appearance and flavor.
In part, our goa in the presenbtation was to add a better understanding of the trade-offs, and look at how much consumers value each of those attributes. So, even though we know we want all of those things, some are more important than others, and we provided some information that goes a little more into the nuance of those preferences, past just what industry experts will already say they anecdotally know is true.
Q. What about retailers? How do they take your research and translate that into greater sales for them in the produce section?
A. Highlight when you are selling regionally grown produce. We know a lot of times it does come with a premium, but if you’re able to market it as regionally grown, or locally grown, customers may be willing to pay a little bit higher price when compared to a berry that’s coming from out of state or out West. Being able to market that fact is great for retailers.
Additionally, we are seeing that when people are able to taste strawberries, they are valuing regionally grown strawberries higher than they are the berries grown in California. So in this case, possibly bringing in sampling or taste testing helps stores demonstrate to customers that there may be more value in buying these regionally produced products or products that are sweeter.
Q. And what about all those other people in between the grower and the retailer — the wholesalers, the shippers — what can they do to boost their sales using your research?
A lot of my research lies either on the farm and or on the retail, so I’m less well-versed with the people in the middle, I will be very upfront about that. But, for me, one of the really important things is making sure that information isn’t lost — some of the descriptions about where it’s coming from or attributes of that specific berry — as it’s being sold throughout the supply chain. A product changes hands many times, so ensure that you’re marketing the qualities the initial farmer was so proud to supply — that the information makes it to the end retailer.
This research is fascinating, extremely interesting – the question is whether it is telling us something about how consumers shop or something about what consumers feel is the socially correct answer to a question: Would you pay more for local?
The reality is that when consumers are in a store, making actual buying decisions, they have trade offs in mind. “We are saving to take the kids to Walt Disney world this Christmas”… or “Becky’s tuition payment is due in a month, and we are short”… These issues affect actual purchase decisions in a way that is really difficult to capture in a lab or interview. Nobody ever asks consumers, “The dress your daughter is planning to wear to the prom is on lay away. If you pay a premium for locally grown produce, you may not be able to pick up the dress six paychecks from now. Would you be willing to take that risk to buy local?”
Yet that is, in fact, the situation for many consumers. Not all, of course. Some affluent people can buy whatever produce they want, produce cost is an inconsequential decision. Even then, though, we can’t be certain of to what degree people express opinions that they believe are socially correct, not what they actually intend to do.
We were very excited to have a new voice among Cornell researchers join our discussion at The New York Produce Show and Conference.
We will be watching for further developments on this type of intriguing research and welcome this new generation of Cornell industry experts to the New York event.
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Many thanks to Rebecca Wasserman-Olin for sharing her research and her insight.