Where is your next meal coming from? Around seven in ten (68%) of us globally say that we are more likely to purchase products that are locally grown and in 19 of the 23 countries surveyed, two-thirds or more want local. Where the food is grown is even more important to us than how it is grown: only 47% of us make it a priority to eat foods that are organic.
Part of this is almost certainly related to the increasing levels of concern about the environment, explored in more detail in Uncertainty is the New Normal. Discussions of food miles – the distance our food has travelled to get to our plates – are becoming more common, and half of us (53%) say we are willing to pay more for packaging that will help food stay fresh for longer – an innovation that is good for our pocket and the environment as it reduces food waste. Forty-two per cent of us say we are willing to pay more for packaging that is biodegradable and good for the environment. Though environmentalism, and arguably patriotism and quality assurance, may be factors in driving the desire for local, there are other, less obvious, factors at play too.
Welcome to the rise of the ‘Locavore’
We will explore simplicity elsewhere in this report at a broader level. Fiona Moss’ article acknowledges that consumers are increasingly looking for others to help guide their decisions, offering a filter for the vast quantities of information we are faced with, whilst still ensuring the autonomy of the decision remains with the consumer themselves. The exploration and discovery of local food provides a different type of curation and choice editing process than that traditionally offered by the superstore or big online retailer.
The online rebellion
Uptake of online shopping still varies by country, but it is growing everywhere. 16% of UK purchases are made online each year, 14% of purchases in China and 12% in Norway.31 Over half of us (52%) find online shopping easier than shopping in a traditional store (consumers in Germany and Britain are particularly positive about the ease of online shopping). A common reaction from grocery retailers towards online retail has been to reduce labour, cut costs and sacrifice customer service. You can argue this is turning bricks and mortar stores into an ‘offline online’.
The farm shop (which has a presence in Europe and North America), on the other hand, guarantees provenance and typically serves local and sustainable produce in an authentic environment, coupled with a personal service. The product can be smelt, touched and tasted – there is a physical and emotional connection between the consumer, the farmer and the land. The consumer becomes a kind of connoisseur, discovering a local delicacy and gaining a little personal pride. Big or online grocery retailers may well struggle to better this kind of experience.
So, what does local mean?
If it’s the experience of shopping for local food – the curation and discovery attracting the consumer – the meaning of ‘local’ cannot be limited to a single definition. It is easy to see the term extending beyond literally where you are. Take for instance, ‘local’ farmers’ markets in central London and other cities around the world. The attraction is not the ‘local’ in the immediate geographic sense; we know there are no farms in the city to supply the markets. This is ‘local on tour’. The farmers travel into the city to connect their produce with the consumer. City dwellers know the produce isn’t from London or indeed in many cases, its close surroundings. However, just knowing where the produce is from, and connecting with the farmer in a physical sense, is enough for some shoppers to classify the experience as satisfyingly local.
One major British supermarket introduced new ‘farm food’ ranges in 2016, attributing British sounding farm names to its produce, despite being sourced from manufacturers with no relation to the created names on the packaging. The ranges proved popular with consumers, partly for keen pricing, but partly due to the perceived provenance (despite mostly being sourced from abroad). Was this ‘alternative facts’ food? Well, in fact, this was not necessarily about connecting with those fictional farms as a real place, but the emotional satisfaction of feeling the food came from some place. Indeed, if consumers believe they are discovering new and exciting produce, their need for feeling in control, and ‘editing’ their choices is met, and the purist definition of ‘local’ may become irrelevant.
Online and Local – are they really in opposition?
A desire to engage – and shop – in a more connected way with country, region, town, village or street may in part be a reaction to the rise of the globalised, homogenised online world – a third of people globally (32%) do not believe that globalisation is good for their country. But are these two strands always necessarily pulling in a different direction? We might in fact see them running together in the near future.
UK company Hubbub32 tried and failed at online conveyancing of local produce. But maybe in the spirit of going second to come first, companies with scale and expertise on efficient systems could make it work. Consider Amazon. Forays have been made into the delivery of (first) ambient groceries with Prime Pantry and now perishable goods with Amazon Fresh. As they have broadened their inventory, so they have continued to dial up the speed with Prime Now – getting you many of your goods within an hour or two of desire; achieved via a network of local warehouse hubs. Could they move from local delivery mechanics to local product and produce? If they can get the supply logistics right, they could use their local infrastructures to become champion of local in what they deliver, not simply how. Not just being in your locality, but bringing you your locality. Bringing truly local product, but at scale.
When many shoppers are looking to cut down their choices, and get help with navigation of these, it’s tempting to think this is a desire to disengage, to turn grocery shopping into something efficient and functional. And for some categories, it is.
But alongside a desire for functional, there can be a desire for fun. We suggest the wish for speedier shopping experiences for some cupboard items is in part to actually gain time and emotional focus to spend engaging with the types of food and products that do excite and enliven us. Simplifying the mundane shopping creates more room for the emotionally rewarding shopping – just hand me the flour so I can spend time browsing the flowers.
Within this, there is both fragmentation – the reasons why shoppers in different parts of the world express such a strong stated desire to purchase local produce vary from quality reassurance (Indonesia) to connoisseurship and sense of status (India) – and cohesion, in the ways seemingly different strands might in fact run together as much as run into one another.
There are challenges and opportunities for several players in this dialogue:
- For the big multiple grocers – if they are to embrace and champion the best of a locality, what might this mean for the traditional mega-sourcing buying arrangements of the past twenty years?
- For the online mega-retailers – can they use their new infrastructures to grow, not only getting into your locale to deliver, but bringing you your locale in what they deliver?
- For local producers and brands – how can they take advantage of the bigger potential partners, taking care not to be taken advantage of?
- Global brands and products – at the beginning of 2017 Kraft Heinz made an unsuccessful bid to buy Unilever; where once companies might have acquired each other chiefly for scale and presence, to bring their brands into given countries, could they now think about not just being in new countries, but being ‘of’ those countries in what they sell, and celebrate?
Plenty more to debate and consider. But for now, it seems that increasingly, how we as shoppers identify ourselves and identify with each other is not just a question of where we’re ‘at’, but the ‘where’ that we eat.