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Everyone has expressed surprise at the resilience of the natural/organic category, particularly during the Great Recession. Sure, sales dropped, but not as bad as expected. What’s more, sales have rebounded quite nicely with a speed that’s heartening.

Experts attributed the category’s stamina to consumers desiring to stay as healthy as possible — high unemployment meant that many were living without health insurance. Likewise, there was the general belief that wellness had taken a strong enough hold to influence shopping and purchase patterns, regardless of conditions.

TABS Group, which has polled consumers on their organic purchases since 2008, during the depths of the recession, found that the percentage of U.S. consumers purchasing organic products held steady in the 38-39% range during the last year, roughly in keeping with the prior two years: The numbers have flexed from 38.4% in 2008, to 38% in 2009, to 38.6% this past year, researchers found.

New this year was the ability of the firm to include organic chicken and red meat in the survey; purchase rates were 13.4% and 6.4%, respectively.

“The inclusion of these two categories had only a modest impact on organic penetration, pushing the incidence from 38.6% to 39.8%,” the report said. “Stated another way, less than 10% of the organic meat users were incremental to the organic product sector.”

The poll found that traditional supermarkets benefited the most from organic purchases. These were the stores respondents named as their preferred venues for organic purchases, increasing from 41% in 2009 to 44.1% last year.

An analysis by the Nielsen Company uncovered a different point of view regarding the economy’s impact on shopping behavior. Nielsen’s research looked at the type of shopping trip, the venue and the income of the consumer.

The firm found that most shopping trips right now are comprised of the “small” or “immediate need” variety. The conventional wisdom behind this is that consumers are still uncertain about the economy and want to keep some of that cash on hand.

Supermarkets are losing out to mass merchandisers, dollar stores and supercenters on this short-duration store visits. But they are seeing “minor” gains in medium, large and extra large shopping trips. These are the ones with bigger baskets and, therefore, higher rings at the front end.

Short trips still dominate, but the emergence of longer trips — in supermarkets in particular — bode well for the coming months. As the winter fades into spring, here’s hoping that consumer attention will once again turn to health and wellness, and therefore, products that are natural, organic and earth-friendly.

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