Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Tuesday Talking Points Memo

On My Mind: Buying Local is Great, But Far From a Retail Panacea or Paradigm

I'm a big proponent of the buying local practice and movement. For me it makes not only good ecological sense but also harkens back to a time when a consumer could know most of the origins and sources of the food he procured, prepared and ate.

Shopping at my local farmer's market, for example, brings out the hunter-gatherer "gene" in me, the biological aspects of which are still wired in the lower portion of our brain. Shopping the market stalls, talking to the growers and artisan food producers, socializing with other shoppers; these things bring me personal joy as well as resulting in plenty of provisions I can take home and prepare. The same is true for me when I shop at a really well designed and well merchandised natural foods store or retail supermarket.

Buying local when possible also empowers small family farmers, which I love. I also like the pro-environmental benefits of the practice--the less miles food has to travel to get to me the more energy I personally have a hand in conserving. Since I live in California I'm fortunate in that we have numerous local farmers and growers, artisan food purveyors, and local specialty foods entrepreneurs, who offer a wide-variety of fresh produce, some meats, some seafood and other locally-produced provisions. We also have many farmer's markets, local chain and independent retailers who try to buy local as much as they can, seasonal roadside produce stands, and farmer's who sell direct to the consumer.

However, despite living in an agricultural state which is the leader in buying local, farmer's markets and similar local food buying systems, I still can't get everything I need or want by buying local. If I wanted I could strictly buy local and likely survive on using it as my only food procurement method. But when it comes to food I am personally about far more than mere survival, as I believe most consumers are. There are foodstuffs I desire and use--such as basic domestic grocery products, imported foods, fresh seafood, meats, natural and specialty foods items, and other things I can't buy locally. There's also the seasonality issue. I try to eat seasonal fresh fruits and vegetables (they taste better and are generally cheaper) but I do have the desire for a fresh fruit or vegetable that's out of season locally or imported from another state or even country at times. We live in a global village folks..

The majority of people in the U.S. who live in states other than California and a few other states don't have this local- bounty available to them like I do. Nor do they have the local distribution network of markets and the like we have in California. Most states don't even produce agricultural products in any significant quantity, especially fresh fruits and vegrtables.. And with those that do the seasonality issue is prime. You can get some great locally-grown fresh produce in parts of the East Coast and Midwest in the late spring and summer, for example, but come those cold, snowy winters there isn't much locally-grown for the dinner table.

As such, the reality is the majority of people in the U.S. can at best use "buy local" as a supplement to their regular shopping. I encourage the development of local agriculture and farmer's markets everywhere in the country where it's feasible. I even celebrate it and personally support it.. But we need to be real and realize buying local has its limitations.

Cost also is a factor. Buying locally from farmer's markets and the like, especially fresh produce and meats, generally costs considerably more than buying what is available at the supermarket. And locally grown produce, meats and grocery products if available at the supermarket or natural foods store also usually have significantly higher price points. Many Americans can't keep up with the current costs of discount, mass-produced food as it is. Therefore, for them buying local is more of a luxury at this point, unless the local-foods are comparably priced to what they are normally buying at the supermarket, which usually isn't the case.

In terms of the retail food industry, I see a mixed-model paradigm making sense rather than the buying-local paradigm as the primary focus, which is being argued by many for the natural foods retailing industry in particular. This model should be a combination of retailers buying and marketing locally-grown products whenever they can and offering traditional products which they must do. There is a market for them after all. An emphasis should be put on healthy, natural and organic domestically produced good in retail stores in markets where it makes since. Retailers should also increase their selection of these natural foods in stores in lower income areas so that shoppers in those neighborhoods have more healthy and natural choices. But when they do and the market just isn't there they can't be expected to continue doing so.

Let's face it folks, we live in a global village, and imported specialty and ethnic foods are part of our global lives. A good part in fact. Experimenting with foods from throughout the world is an educational tool. Preparing a meal using authentic (and yes imported) specialty and ethnic foods is a way to explore, learn about, and appreciate other cultures. For many people who aren't wealthy it's also one of their primary indulgences. A person may not be able to afford a trip to Italy or China, but they can buy some authentic imported Italian or Chinese foods and prepare a wonderful meal as a way to enjoy the culture and appreciate the cuisine. You just can't get these authentic ethnic and specialty foods locally. They are a part of life and a healthy part of the paradigm I detailed above both for the reasons just described and many others as well.

In terms of the locally-grown foods, retailers should tout them in-store with signs, in their advertising circulars, and in other marketing messages In other words make them important.. I 'd also like to see retailers of all formats support locally-grown producers. Programs like Whole Foods Market, Inc's $10 million revolving loan fund to small food producers is an excellent idea. Additionally, in California Supermarket chains like Raley's Superstores and Save Mart, Inc., along with numerous independents, are giving local growers and producers selling/buying priorities, and in some cases paying them a slight premium for their products.

Retailers are in the business of offering consumers choice, among other things. Specialized retail formats like health food stores, natural foods stores, and specialty/gourmet markets, edit that consumer choice by virtue of their format. Supermarkets even edit that choice as well by virtue of their store location (demographics) and square-footage. However, within the constraints of their given formats these retailers strive (at least the successful ones do) to give their shoppers as much variety as possible. To be successful retailers need to innovate and in particular listen to their customers.

I recall when a local Whole Foods store decided to carry Best Foods Mayonnaise a number of years ago. It was rather radical for them to do so at the time. I asked the store manager why he brought the product in. He told me that for years customers (the store's primary customers) had been asking him to carry it. He finally did so when many of them told him they were buying it at the nearby Safeway even though they did their primary shopping at his Whole Foods store. They also told him they noticed the Safeway Store was carrying an increasing selection of natural and organic grocery products at decent prices. He didn't want to lose his primary shoppers over Best Foods Mayonnaise so he brought in every sku of the famous product the manufacturer produced at the time. Good retailers know primary shoppers are what makes keeps them in business.

What I'm suggesting and arguing for is perspective on the "buy local" concept and movement. We should do all we can to develop, assist, encourage and promote buying local across the spectrum--from the farm to the consumer. However, it's neither a panacea for the retail industry or consumers, nor a paradigm that can become the dominant or primary model for food retailing in the U.S. Rather, it's one important leg of a multi-legged food retailing stool. It offers great benefits as part of a mix of ways in which we produce, market, sell and consume our food.

But it isn't enough in terms of fulfilling consumer needs and wants and offering choice. Doing that requires the mix I described above. And just like consumers all over the world love certain types of U.S-produced food products, Americans love ethnic cuisines and specialty foods. What a boring and narrow life we would lead if "everything" was local--including all of our foods.

No comments: