Trader Joes shoppers and farmers markets: will they come?

As my colleagues wished me a happy birthday last week, they asked me what fun thing I had to do on my birthday: I told them that one of them was to go to the opening of the first Trader Joe’s in the area, which opened in the suburbs of New Orleans that very day. I am sure some that the choice of viewing a retail store was odd, but not only is grocery store obsession a very New Orleans thing, it is most certainly one of my favorite “busman’s holidays.” (I also went to the inaugural fried chicken festival on Sunday so don’t worry about me too much.)

Now, speaking as a farmers market consultant…

I think knowing who the core shoppers are for the stores around a market is very helpful. In many cases, research is available on the chains or a visit to the local store (at both its peak and at its slow time) can usually tell you about that store’s demographic.

To give an illustration, I have included some global demographic info from Whole Foods and Trader Joes as well as a few market shopper personas. Forgive the errors and the oversimplifications. The data on the stores comes from retail research available online. The market data comes from the many surveys and data collection reports I have either participated on or read. Do be aware that there are many subgroups within each of these to be explored.

Grocery store shoppers

Whole Foods:”Decentralized” systems: regional management, store team approach and “localized” inventory management

  • Whole Foods focuses on the per capita population that has college degrees. The key customer for the average Whole Foods location is a working parent that is between the age of 30 and 50.
  • From the Yougov site: The typical Whole Foods customer is a female between the ages of 25 and 39 with more than $1,000 in discretionary monthly income. She likely works in architecture or interior design. She doesn’t mind paying more for organic food and she tries to buy fair-trade products where available. Her interests include writing, exercising, and cooking. She would describe herself as ethical, sensitive, and communicative, but also admits to occasionally acting like a self-absorbed and demanding daydreamer. Her favorite foods are sushi and tea and she probably drives a Mercedes-Benz.

Trader Joe’s: Centralized, secretive inventory management, mostly direct from manufacturers and a detailed screening process for hiring.

  • Most research shows that the TJ shopper is the most likely chain in the U.S.  to be brand loyal and to recommend the store to others.
  • TJ Culture dips into the health food movement, the gourmet food, wine and booze craze, and the ever-popular discount ideal. But all in moderation. “Our favorite customers are out-of-work college professors,” says Tony Hales, captain of the store in Silver Lake. “Well-read, well-traveled, appreciates a good value.” The chain focuses on singles, small families looking for small package sizes.
  • 50% have college degrees. Almost half havean household income of 100,000.
  • Stores carry 2-3,000 SKUS versus 30,000 -50,000 in a normal supermarket. 80% of their items are private label.

Market shoppers

Green marketers

The early adopters of farmers markets and in most cases, a dwindling group. These folks have the trip to their market cemented into their weekly schedule. Their allegiance is to certain vendors and not necessarily to the market organization itself. They will try added products when they are told about them, as long as their favorite vendors are not in competition.They buy as much of their protein (meat, seafood, cheese) here as possible. They tend to shop one or two stores for their household items and are not that picky about chain or local designation for those. They will articulate the value of the market (really of their fav vendors)  to others but only when asked. They rarely shop farm stands and do not shop other farmers markets when traveling. Their average basket (total spent)  does not change that much from week to week. They ign and are even annoyed about market events. They stick to the one weekly market they like and rarely make it to the others.

Grow/Cook Preachers

This group is the 30-50 years olds among the market shoppers. The reason they have taken the source of their food into their own hands varies from health scares to economic necessity and local sovereignty concerns but they can articulate it when asked. Terms such as heirloom, organic and food deserts are key for them. They will buy protein items but only when they are priced well and have good signage about the ecological practices available. They are not as loyal to individual vendors as to product price and quality; they like some direct competition on most items. They want to be able to shop for almost all of their F&V needs (within reason) at this market. When they do shop at other stores, they compare items to the market ones and will gladly share that info with the stores and with the market. They tend to shop one main local store or small chain for their household items. They preach to their friends about the market without being asked. They don’t shop farm stands very often but do visit other farmers markets when traveling. They spend more time viewing the market organization’s website and go to staff for assistance. Their average basket changes based on the items available. They like the educational events. They are not as loyal to a specific location or day of the market that they will attend.

Seasonal Show-ers

I think this group is the largest for most markets in this era. They shop more than monthly but not weekly and come to get specific items. Fruit is the main attraction, but field tomatoes, carrots, and lettuces are examples of other items that remind them to get back to the market. They shop farm stands widely and will drop into a farmers market when traveling but only if it’s convenient. They like lots of competition among vendors. They shop a lot of stores for their household items. They will tell people about the market when asked but only right after their trip to the market; their allegiance lessens between market trips. Their average basket changes widely. They like cultural events. They usually go to the same market each time they attend and have a hard time remembering where and when other markets are held.

So even with that small bit of data, one can start to glean how each demographic for the market and for the stores listed connect or don’t connect. The data indicates to me that the core WF and TJ shoppers are probably not the ones for a small market to attempt to reach at first or even for some time. (Also important to note that the purchasing mode that TJ’s uses and that WF is likely to follow in some manner will severely hamper regional producers ability to sell their items to the chains.) Instead, it may be more helpful to look for those other stores in the area that have shoppers less loyal to one particular brand and then communicate the key values of the market that would appeal to them. What is most helpful is knowing the subgroups of those market shopper buckets within your local community; what that requires is a staff person or a key board member who knows the local community very well. Or, if that is not possible, to do surveys and conduct focus groups for a report that the market can refer to when building a marketing plan. Lastly, I am excerpting from the excellent 2010 report from USDA ERS on local food that can be used as the basis to explore your local market demographics. This one is a must for any food system organization to download and refer to when looking for data.

The most recent national data suggest that while local food consumers are demographically diverse, they are very similar in their motivations for buying local. The majority of respondents to a national study cited freshness (82 percent), support for the local economy (75 percent), and knowing the source of the product (58 percent) as reasons for buying local food at direct markets or in conventional grocery stores (Food Marketing Institute, 2009).

Two national studies found that consumers with varying educational and income levels were equally likely to purchase local food (Keeling-Bond et al., 2009; Zepeda and Li, 2006), while other studies have found local food patrons to be more educated and earning above-average income (Brooker and Eastwood, 1989; Eastwood, 1996; Eastwood et al., 1999; Govindasamy et al., 1998). Consumers who enjoy cooking, growing a food garden, frequenting health food stores, and purchasing organic food were more likely to buy local food. On the other hand, environmental and health-related attitudes and behaviors, while well received among local food consumers, were not important factors affecting actual food purchases (Zepeda and Li, 2006).

…In other studies, the role of demographic characteristics was somewhat stronger. Consumers who were female, older, more educated, higher income earners, and members of environmental groups were more likely to buy local food (Brown, 2003; Brooker and Eastwood, 1989; Eastwood, 1996; Eastwood et al., 1999; Govindasamy et al., 1998). CSA membership was found to be positively linked to higher education, a preference for organic products, and finding out about the CSA via word-of-mouth (Zepeda and Leviten-Reid, 2004). Whether the observed variation in the role of education and income reflects a trend or differences in availability and prices of local food is difficult to assess: separating the influence of location from time is difficult due to lack of comparability among the studies.

(Martinez, Steve, et al. Local Food Systems: Concepts, Impacts, and Issues, ERR 97, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, May 2010.)
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