In the words of musician Bob Dylan, “The times they are a-changin’.”

And the change may be as apparent in the grocery store as anywhere. Driving that change is a more informed and a more engaged consumer, says Lorna Christie, executive vice president and chief operating officer for the Produce Marketing Association.

Christie, as keynote luncheon speaker at the Texas Produce Convention last month in San Antonio, said consumers are changing the way they shop for food and are asking for more information about where products come from, how they are grown and how they will fit into the family’s menus.

“The change is fueled by baby boomers,” Christie said, “who are concerned with health issues.” A new consumer has emerged, a “flexterian,” someone who prefers fruits and vegetables but will eat meat. “We encourage them to continue the trend,” she said, “by emphasizing nutrition benefits.”

Consumers are also changing their shopping habits, buying food from different places—Target, Wal-Mart and Walgreens—instead of traditional supermarkets, and they have more choices. “On-line grocery shopping is growing, so we need to make certain produce is part of that convenience trend.”

She said 90 percent of mothers with children under 18 shop online and 32 million are active on social media. “Some 68 percent own a Smartphone, and they are clipping coupons. But only a small number of our members use coupons as a selling tool.”

More dads are taking on grocery shopping and cooking duties. “That’s a powerful force, so how do we connect to it?”

Consumers want more information about their food purchases. “Some 59 percent want a connection with the farmer,” she said. That feeds into the value of locally grown food.

Consumers want real story

“Consumers are looking for the story behind locally-grown—the farmer. And 79 percent want food that’s environmentally friendly; 75 percent want reduced pesticide residue. That’s partly from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) influence, so we need to tell our own story. Sustainability can be a marketing tool.”

Consumers also want fair treatment of labor in food production.

“Information about how to use our products is also important to consumers. They need facts, basic information on product use.”

She said adding recipes to packages could be a good opportunity to improve consumer comfort with products, especially products they are not familiar with.

“Packaging is important. Nutritional information, sell and use by date and recipes are easy to add and connect to consumers. If they don’t know how to use products, they avoid them.

“Convenience is king,” she added, “but 63 percent of consumers say they do not eat the recommended daily allowance of fruits and vegetables. Consumption is flat.”

Better information on use, nutritional value and health benefits could help move that marker up.

“Consumers also think fruits and vegetables are expensive. That’s just not so. And they are easy to integrate into menus.”

She said care and handling information should also be included on packaging since “some consumers are concerned about spoilage.”

Consumers should balance price versus quality, health versus flavor. “The industry can use packaging as a portal for these messages.”

 “Food safety,” she added, is a crucial issue. “It’s a scary topic and hurts the industry. It is one of our most critical issues.” The EWG has added fuel to the fire with its “dirty dozen list of safety issues for consumers.” That’s also an issue the produce industry should address and present facts instead of scare tactics.

“One person sick is too many,” Christie said. “But 37 dead (from foodborne illness) is outrageous.” The industry must address the problem and find solutions.

Genetically modified organism (GMO) foods also generate discord. “It’s a huge debate in California,” Christie said. “But as food demand increases dramatically over the next 30 years, we will need all kinds of foods.”

Competition between GMO, organic and conventionally grown foods is not useful and divides the industry.

A recent study by Stanford University shows that battles between conventional and organic foods are virtually pointless. Organic products have no significant nutrition or health benefits compared to conventional. One of the study’s authors, Crystal Smith-Spangler, MD, MS, an instructor in the school’s Division of General Medical Disciplines and a physician-investigator at VA Palo Alto Health Care System, said people should aim for healthier diets overall. She emphasized the importance of eating fruits and vegetables, “however they are grown,” noting that most Americans don’t consume the recommended amount.

Game changer

Christie said the produce industry has “allowed the media to define who we are. It’s time to take back our brand. Tell the real story. We need to invest in science and technology.”

Technology will be the game changer and will play “a significant role in food production and marketing. We have new retailers and on-line purchases. Virtual stores have witnessed a 130-percent increase in on-line sales in Europe and Asia. Mobile phone apps are used in virtual grocery stores.

“We have connected consumers, the most sophisticated consumers ever.” She categorizes digital shoppers into two groups—“digital immigrants,” those who adopted digital technology later in life, and “digital natives,” those who grew up with the technology. Many of those digital natives make decisions through social media. “They are big buyers and have changed the market.”

To reach that market, Christie challenged the produce industry to become “engaged, informed and to collaborate and co-create. And remember that your online reputation is crucial.”

She encouraged the industry to embrace change and to prepare for it. “If you’re asking the same questions that you asked last year in your business planning sessions, you’re already behind,” she said.

“Consider a new term, ‘glocal,’ which means think globally but act locally,” Christie said. “Take into account the influence of the consumers and develop the ability to communicate with them.”

Change may be challenging, but that doesn’t mean fruit and vegetable producers, packers and others in the food industry have to stand by and watch. As Dylan intoned: “…you better start swimmin' or you'll sink like a stone, for the times they are a-changin'.”