Understanding the Local Foods Shopper

Myrna Greenfield
Myrna Greenfield
Good Egg Marketing

Understanding what motivate your customers to buy local foods can help you figure out how to meet their needs and the type of information you should provide about your farm and products.  This post profiles some general characteristics of people who seek out opportunities to purchase directly from farmers or producers and suggests how you can learn more about local foods shoppers in your target geographic area.

Who Buys Local Foods Directly from Farmers?

Thanks to favorable publicity, support from famous chefs, and increased availability, the general public overwhelmingly views buying locally grown foods as a positive.  While definitions and understanding of what is locally grown vary, numerous surveys have found that the US public believes that locally grown foods are fresher, and therefore are more likely to be tasty and nutritious. They also believe that locally grown foods support family farms, which they also view as positive. For example, if the average shopper is offered two apples that look and cost the same, he or she would choose the one that’s labeled “locally grown."

Even though the public has a positive perception of local foods, however, not everyone is willing or able to buy directly from farmers and producers. Convenience, availability, and price are some of the reasons that deter people from buying directly from farmers.

Fortunately, although estimates of the market size vary, a large and growing segment of the public actively seeks to purchase local foods from farmers markets, farm stands, and CSAs some or all of the time. Their motivations are often both personal and social. As mentioned above, almost everyone perceives of locally grown foods as fresher, tastier, and more nutritious. People who purchase local foods directly from farmers, however, also tend to know how and like to cook. In addition, they enjoy the experience of going to farmers markets and farms stands and are willing to sacrifice some convenience to do so. Most notably, they’re also more likely to care about supporting local farmers and local economies, knowing where their food comes from, and preserving farmland and protecting the environment.

Learning About Shoppers in Your Local Market

There are a variety of ways to learn more about the type of people in your area who seek to buy local foods directly from farmers.

Find existing research

  • First, you can talk to organizations and government agencies involved in marketing local foods in your town or state, such as the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources, your local extension service, academic institutions, the Farm Bureau, and Buy Local organizations, to see if they have any information. Many of these organizations conduct surveys of farmers, consumers, and farmers markets and have data about market trends and customer profiles.
  • You can also conduct an Internet search to look for newspaper articles, blog posts, and commercial research about related topics.  Journalists do a great job at reporting about market trends, annual sales, and customer motivations.  This is often a great way to gather information about other farmers in your area.

Do your own research

  • Draw (or create on your computer) a map with a mark for every producer in your target geographic area that grows or raises the types of local foods that you offer. If you know their specialties (e.g. fruit, produce, meat, dairy), growing techniques (e.g. organic, IPM, conventional), and outlets, add this information. This will help you visualize where you fit in.
  • Using a different color or symbol, make a mark for every location in your target geographic area that sells the type of local foods that you offer, including farmers markets, farms, natural foods stores, specialty foods stores, supermarkets, and wholesale clubs. This will help you identify the locations with the most market saturation.  While market density is a sign of interest and doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t succeed there, it is also a sign that you will need to make a special effort to differentiate yourself.
  • If you’re friendly with other farmers, especially those who are not in direct competition, ask them what they know about their customers’ interests, needs, and motivations. 
  • Visit farmers markets, farm stands, natural food stores, and other venues to see what products are selling, price ranges, and how local products are identified and promoted.

Draw some conclusions

  • Use all the data you’ve collected to write down any assumptions that you think you can make about local foods shoppers in your area.  For example, do prices for comparable items fall in a narrow range or a wide one?  If prices seem to be over the map, consumers obviously value many criteria, not just cost.
  • Are shoppers grabbing recipe cards and reading signs about how to prepare greens?  Then chatting with customers about how to use or store specific foods would probably be welcomed.
  • What demographic groups do the shoppers fall in?  Can you make any generalizations? For example, if you see a lot of Hispanic shoppers or Vietnamese shoppers, you may want to have bilingual signs.

Myrna Greenfield, MBA, is a marketing consultant. Her company, Good Egg Marketing, specializes in promoting good food and good causes.  Her blog, The PescoVegetarianTimes writes about growing, buying, cooking and eating healthy local food. Myrna can be reached at myrna@goodfoodmarketing.com or 617-642-3562.