Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Metro consumers want relationships with producers

7% of fresh food sales happen here.
Consumer preferences change and retailers adapt to fulfil them. When I lived in Sydney, in a suburb about 10km south-west of the CBD, I used to shop at a large supermarket like everyone else. The suburb I lived in was very multicultural, predominantly Chinese but with populations of Greek and Pacific Islander people as well. It sits outside the area normally labelled "inner city" (with all the connotations implied in that term), but only just. Gentrification is only a matter of time and for me it made itself felt when a smallgoods-and-cheese gondola suddenly appeared in the supermarket one day. Here you can buy salamis, prosciutto, sausages from Germany and elsewhere, specialty delicatessen cheeses, flavoured olives and the like. It reminded me of the cappuccino revolution that took place in Australian cities over a couple of decades, starting in the early 80s.

Now there's another major change underway and it's not new but neither are a number of concerns held by people who shop at farmers markets, such as human-induced climate change. For many people living in Australia's cities, the message this video imparts is a no-brainer. Such people are progressive in outlook and they vote accordingly, which accounts for the growing importance nationally of the Greens. But they have money to spend and the way they choose to spend it should be of interest to retailers. Such people are influencers. They set trends, just like the young kids who sought out good coffee in the inner city 30 years ago, and so people involved in food production should be looking at what they spend their money on. What they are doing now will become orthodoxy in 20 years' time.

The Australian Farmers' Markets Association has published some of the findings of a report produced by the federal government, Australian Food Statistics 2010-11. Published by the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, it shows that farmers' markets have more than doubled between 2004 and 2011 to 150-plus nationally (the section on farmers' markets starts on page 58 of the PDF). For farmers, these markets offer higher returns, opportunities to develop new products, and a place where they can feel valued.

Food miles is something that concerns some consumers. Personally, I think the jury is still out as to whether transport to and from farmers' markets positively reduces the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, compared to trucking produce in on large, articulated vehicles. But it's not just food miles that concern consumers. There is also the issue, as the report mentions, of interaction between consumers and producers. Top chefs in cities go out of their way to establish meaningful relationships with the people who produce the food they prepare in their restaurants. Like the young people who buy food at farmers' markets, these chefs are major social influencers. They appear on cooking shows on TV in cities and deliver messages that they believe are important. They have clout. Their stories cut through. And because of the growing awareness of sustainability in metro areas they are on-message.

The same chefs often grow their own produce in kitchen gardens, and backyard gardening is also a growing trend in cities, harking back to the war years when the government asked urban residents to produce food themselves in order to offset shortages induced by the international conflict. Everything old, is new again, as they say. I think major retailers are aware of these changes happening in Australian cities and I think it's only a matter of time before they move to positively address some of the issues involved. Perhaps the major retailers will start a program where they invite farmers to man a stall inside the supermarket, so that consumers can talk with them and learn about where their food comes from.

Whether consumers will listen to major retailers, of course, is another matter. In fact, farmers themselves are in a much better position to influence consumers because of this issue of trust. An entrepreneur is always telling stories, I understand. Entrepreneurial farmers would be busy telling their own stories to consumers, in order to establish those personal links that make such a difference to the metro resident.

There are other changes occurring in cities, too, that should be of interest to all producers. One notable indicator of the need among metro residents for access to good stories is the growing popularity of a new type of event that people can go to in their spare time. It's about meaningful experiences, engagement, and a positive way of interacting with others, and with the world. Goodbye nightclubbing, hello TEDx.

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