CHICAGO — Supermarkets that merchandise organics, source fair trade items and carry environmentally friendly products may not only be converting mainstream shoppers but also attracting new, sustainability-driven consumers.
“Grocers gained over half a share point with sustainability-driven shoppers, while their share remained flat with [sustainability-neutral] shoppers,” said Sheila McCusker, editor of Information Resources Inc.'s Times & Trends report. “That speaks volumes, and it's giving grocers an edge over other channels. The mass and dollar-store channels lost share within this [sustainability-driven] consumer segment.”
McCusker's findings were part of an IRI sustainability survey that examined how factors including organic, eco-friendly products, eco-friendly packaging and fair treatment of employees or suppliers influence consumers' packaged goods selections and where they shop.
Half of U.S. consumers consider at least one sustainability feature when making these decisions, while one in every five shoppers takes at least two factors into account. IRI describes members of the latter group as being “sustainability-driven.”
“This is the first time we've been able to document that there is a large, viable and growing market for sustainable products and packaging,” said McCusker.
Organics proved to be the most sought-after of the four characteristics: Nearly 40% of consumers search specifically for this type of product, followed by eco-friendly products and packaging (30%). Meanwhile, up to one-fourth of those surveyed consider fair trade practices along with eco-friendly or organic designations when selecting a shopping destination.
McCusker attributes the popularity of Certified Organic products to multiple factors. “Organics are perceived by consumers as having a dual benefit: They are better for health and better for the environment,” she said. “Whenever a product has more than one benefit, it helps drive growth.”
McCusker noted that organic private-label lines are facilitating mainstream trial.
“This is one area where private labels have shown a tremendous amount of innovation,” she said. Store brands “also have an advantage, because they cut across multiple categories, so once a customer has a positive experience in one category [with organics], they're more likely to buy that same brand in other categories.”
IRI highlights successful lines, such as those bearing the Safeway and Kroger labels, and credits national brands like Kraft, which markets organic Wheat Thins and Chips Ahoy, with converting conventional shoppers.
Ecologically friendly products and packaging are also gaining momentum. The replacement of chemical-based items with greener laundry detergent is an emerging trend, according to IRI. Clorox, for instance, recently announced its plans to roll out Green Works, a line of natural and biodegradable household cleaners.
“Though currently just 2% of the total detergent market, the growing demand for biodegradable, nontoxic and plant-based products is reflected in a 66% increase in green product sales during the past year within a category that has overall flat sales,” the study reported.
Awareness about eco-friendly packaging — such as bottles of concentrated liquid laundry detergent that are about half the size of conventional formulas' containers and clean the same number of loads — is also growing. But not all packaging augmentations are as obvious.
“Most manufacturers are not marketing their sustainable packaging improvements, so it's an untapped opportunity.”
Many supplier efforts — whether they be conversions to sustainable energy sources or 20% reductions in the amount of plastic used for bottled water packaging — are not visible to the consumer eye, noted McCusker. Conveying messages about improvements to skeptical consumers on smaller package sizes is also proving to be a challenge.
“Consumers are doubting environmental claims, so they have to be proven,” McCusker said.
Although sustainability factors influence shoppers of all ages, consumers age 55 and older are more readily reaching for these products.
“Older consumers tend to be more sustainability-driven, partly due to the fact that they have more time to search for these products,” said McCusker. “They've also got the budget to buy them.”