Consumers across the US are increasingly looking to 'buy local', but a new study from The Hartman Group suggests that this does not necessarily mean they have to buy direct from the neighborhood farmer - or indeed from the US at all.
According to the report, which is based on research conducted in December 2007 including a national quantitative survey with 796 respondents, although 'local' means very different things to different people, a large majority (73 per cent) of those questioned said they currently buy products they perceive to be locally made or produced.
Kate Peringer of The Hartman Group told FoodNavigator-USA.com that the research had highlighted a number of interesting perceptions about what 'local' actually meant.
"Our research showed that while consumers have a diversity of perspectives on what specifically defines a local product, half of them chose the term 'made or produced within 100 miles', while 37 per cent suggested 'made or produced in my state'," showing that 'food miles' are very much an issue for many US consumers.
Just four per cent of consumers chose regional (e.g., 'New England') or national
terms ("Made in the USA") as possible definitions of local, Peringer added.
As for 'buying local', there were some intriguing differences of perception here, too.
"When asked to rate various possible definitions of the term 'buy local', most consumers go for the definition 'close to home and sold within my community' or 'food products grown within 100 miles of me'."
"But 28 per cent of consumers also agree that 'buy local' means buying food products immediately after they've been made or harvested, regardless of where they come from, and 21 per cent agree that it means buying products that are produced by individuals or small companies rather than large conglomerates."
Nor does buying local necessarily mean spurning the grocery store in favor of the local farm. Over half of consumers surveyed by The Hartman Group said they most frequently buy locally produced products at grocery stores (62 per cent) and farmers' markets (61 per cent), and from a farm stand (44 per cent), while just 28 per cent cite 'direct from the producer' as a source for purchasing locally produced products. Even Wal-Mart could be considered as a source for buying local by some consumers.
According to Peringer, "local products are perceived as being healthier, fresher and of a higher quality" than other products, whether this is in fact the case or not, in part because organic products make up a significant portion of local products purchased.
"Consumers will cite distinct differences between local and organic products, yet one key element binding notions of what make organic and local products similar are notions of freshness - both types of products are typically believed to be fresher and taste better than conventionally-grown products or those sourced from a long distance."
So are farmers and grocery stores responding to this 'local' trend? According to Peringer, they still have some work to do to. "Stores could do a lot more to stock locally produced food, or if they do already, to make its local origins more obvious to consumers, who may often be unaware that the product is local."
"Many farmers do not sell direct to consumers, either, and they could perhaps do more to leverage this demand for local products as well."
Peringer said that one intriguing aspect of the report was the understanding that big brands could also be 'local'. "There are a lot of ways for a big brand to be local by having limited edition and/or seasonal products. A nutrition bar, for example, could have a nut in it that is grown in a certain area that gives it better taste perceptions."
And in some cases, even products imported from the other side of the world could be considered local. "If it was, say, a French cheese, that was made in traditional, time-honored manner, using only local French ingredients, then some of that sense of 'local' could easily be transferred to consumers in the US," Peringer suggested.