What Consumers Want

By Tom Karst


What do consumers want anyway?


What was the focus of a April 25 presentation by Colleen McClellan, director for Datassential, a food research firm.


PBH did a great job of assembling high-level speakers for their April 23-25 Consumer Connections event, and McClellan’s presentation didn’t disappoint.


She gave away t-shirts picturing Ringo Starfruit, Paul McCarrotney, John Lemon and George Pearison.


Yes, that was a great touch. The talk was a winner even before she began.


McClellan approached the question of “what consumers want” with a generational approach, ignoring Generation X but looking at the attitudes of Baby Boomers, Millennials and Generation Z.


Despite their “foodie reputation,” She said younger consumers often aren’t that knowledgeable about fresh produce.


“I think as an industry we have to recalibrate what we think the non-industry folks know,” she said. “So it seems quite obvious to me that a gala apple or a type of pear would just be known because we walk around saying that so much of (the younger generation’s) time is spent on social media, posting food pictures and studying food because they just love it, and they spend $12 on coffee or whatever, that they must know what these different varieties are,” she said. “They must be the ones that pay the most money for heirloom everything right because it’s sexy to them.”


Not so, she said.


“The truth be told is that we have knowledge — this is so gruesome and sad —  but there is knowledge about basic fruit and vegetables that is dying off literally in the minds of the more mature and most senior boomers  —like the beefsteak tomato — that an entire set of generations is going ‘I’ve never even heard of that,” she said. “They may actually be eating it and wouldn’t know it.”


She went on to say that there are varieties of apples, squash, pears (and other commodities)  that suffer the same lack of familiarity with younger consumers. There may be exceptions, but the general rule is that many younger consumers just don’t know.


“It is a problem in two ways —  cooking in the home is not necessarily celebrating the type or the variety we are talking about it  and at a menu level where people experience and learn, (the restaurants) aren't necessarily talking about varieties as much we have generic description like local or farm raised or heirloom but we don’t say what it is.”


McClellan said broad terms like “heirloom” give restaurants the flexibility to rotate in a broader selection of varieties.


“However, there is a disservice in the fact that then awareness starts to erode,” she said. And when awareness erodes, that tends to shrink demand and soon, no one wants the proverbial beefsteak tomato.


“And so this is how we get somewhat trapped in the number of varieties in which we ingest,” she said.


In the hour-long-plus presentation, McClellan then talked about how passionately consumers of various generations feel about specific fruit and vegetable commodities. More on that compelling content in a coming blog post.