Monday, 20 October 2008

Unthinking Consumerism - R.I.P

It looks as if the days of "I want what I want when I want it" are over, even for the relatively affluent, and even when it comes to food which still only accounts for about 10% of UK consumer expenditure. Shoppers are planning more carefully, shopping more wisely, and weighing up the quality/price equation more thoughtfully.
Consider what we know.
Latest research from the Institute of Grocery Distribution (The Credit Crunch-Adapting to Change) shows that 16% more of us are planning meals, 13% more are cooking smaller portions, and 6% more are cooking with leftovers. Indeed the research found that 59% are actively economising.
We also know that shoppers are seeking bargains. The ALDI phenomenon is well documented, as is the growth in shoppers visiting Morrisons and ASDA. Tesco is now promoting itself as the UK's biggest discounter, which makes sense given that it is still 10 times the size of ALDI. Sainsbury claims a growth of 30% in their Basics range and a big uptake in their own label products which sell about 20% cheaper than the equivalent brand. Waitrose says that 30% more products are being bought on promotion. Certainly in the red meat market there is ample evidence of careful buying, with less being bought on each shopping trip, and much more thought being given to the relative price of the various meats. For example lamb, which has seen a huge drop in sales this year, has suddenly bounced back because it has become much closer in price to beef.
It does look though as if consumers have not turned their backs completely on premium tier foods. Sainsbury's Taste the Difference range is growing, albeit modestly, and is still 3 to 4 times the size of its Basics range. Waitrose says that it As Good as Eating Out products have grown by 40%, and that it is "still selling alot of organic".
Which leads to the often raised question of whether ethics have gone out of the window in favour of cheapness. Joanne Denney Finch of IGD, presenting their research findings said ethical purchasing is still important, and that that 79% of people are "still engaged in purchasing some type of ethical product", be it organic, Fair Trade or local produce. And it seems as if as many people as ever are visiting farmers markets. My guess would be that there is still a core of committed people who feel strongly about a particular issue, and continue to buy, but that fringe purchasers who were perhaps following a trend rather than a principle have dropped out completely.
What all this points to is that consumers are being much more thoughtful about how they buy food. Now it's "two stop shopping" for value instead of one stop for convenience. Its being much more canny about promotional offers. And its being much more marketing savvy. Consumers are twigging that the salmon in a store's best range is actually the same as in the basic product, but it's just uniformly presented, and so costs up to 50% more. The label on the premium mince might be classier, but it's still mince. The cooking apples, carrots and parsnips in the cheaper range might be all sorts of odd sizes, but they still taste the same as the more expensive version.
I can't see people reverting to unthinking consumerism any time soon. Yesterday's worry about petrol prices might have abated now that it's below a £ a litre, and the banks seem a bit less wobbly, but today the spectre of unemployment looms, and tomorrow it will be something else.
In this more discerning climate the winners will be those who truly understand what is important to consumers, and offer great quality at a price which consumers think is worth paying.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Why Do EU Consumers Reject Cloned Food?

The recent European Commission report about consumers giving the thumbs down to cloned food has been widely reported. What has received less coverage are the reasons for concerns, and whether the UK feels any differently from other EU countries.
Overall, 58% of EU consumers felt that cloning animals for food was never justifiable. Austria, Sweden, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania and Luxembourg were most opposed. Italy, France ,the Netherlands and Finland came next with over 60% saying that cloning for food was never justifiable. The equivalent UK figure was 45%. Generally women were more opposed than men, as were older people and country dwellers.
Regardless of country, the biggest issue in consumers minds is that not enough is known about the long term health and safety aspects of cloned food. 84% of EU consumers agreed with this statement, with the UK, possibly scarred by memories of BSE and CJD, coming in a bit higher with 87% agreeing.
There is also strong agreement that animal cloning for food is not just a technical issue, rather that it could be seen as unacceptable on ethical grounds. The EU average here was 75%, the same figure as for the UK.
67% of EU consumers agree that that cloning for food production is not acceptable because it treats animals as commodities rather than creatures with feelings. The figure for the UK was slightly lower with 62% agreeing.
Another problem with cloned food is that consumers cannot see how it would benefit them. Rather they felt that the food industry would be the main beneficiary (86% agreeing in the EU, 90% in the UK), and that farmers would also benefit (45% across the EU, 60% in the UK). This echoes what happened on GM foods where there was an underlying unease which was never offset by consumers being given a really good reason why GM was a good thing. The best benefit that consumers could see for cloned food was if it was demonstrated that cloning might be a solution to world hunger. Few saw health/nutrition as a benefit that would justify cloning, and even fewer an economic benefit.
The acid test of course is whether consumers are prepared to buy cloned food. Whilst marginally more prepared to buy food from an animal where just one parent is a clone, there is still a great deal of resistance, even if a trusted source says cloned food is fine. Across the 27 EU countries, 41% said they were not likely to buy cloned food at all, and 21% were somewhat unlikely to buy. The corresponding figures for the UK were 34% and 19%.
Regardless of whether they were pro or anti cloned food, a huge majority (83% EU average, 81% in the UK) said that cloned food would need to be clearly labelled.
Overall, therefore, this huge study of over 25,000 people across 27 countries indicates that EU consumers are very worried about the idea of cloned food. The findings echo other research both in the UK and abroad, and show pretty conclusively, regardless of where people might stand on cloning from ethical, health or safety perspectives, that as of today cloning for food is not a commercial runner.