Woman buying milk.
September 11, 2018

Big City Consumers Aren’t Like You

 |  By: Dairy Talk

My dearly departed dad, a lifelong dairy farmer, was a meat and potatoes guy. He was like most dairy farmers: If you put butter on his bread, a slice of cheddar on his burger, and follow that up with a scoop or two of vanilla ice cream for dessert, he was perfectly content. “I eat to live; I don’t live to eat,” he often said.


Big city consumers aren’t like that. “Many live to eat,” and will spend an inordinate amount of intellect, time and dollars to find just the right food for themselves and their families. That became abundantly clear this summer when a group of six Minneapolis consumers shared their shopping and food preferences with dairy farmer and processor leaders at the Dairy Forum Experience sponsored by the Midwest Dairy Association (MDA).


These six consumers, five women and one man, were selected by Millennium Research to gain insight into on how consumers view dairy products, and what the industry needs to do to get them to consume more dairy foods. All six consumed some dairy products (though one identified as a vegetarian), and half said they would eat more dairy if convinced that dairy products were good for them.


One of the more striking outcomes of the conversation was the amount of time these consumers spent shopping for food and the number of stores they shopped. Most visited four or five food stores weekly, ranging from big box grocery chains (Walmart, Cub Foods, Target, HyVee) to high-end grocers (Whole Foods, Trader Joes) to organic and co-op small outlets.


They would shop specific stores for specific items: Big box grocers for bulk items, high-end stores for food they could find nowhere else and co-ops for produce, specialty and organic items. This amount of food shopping isn’t “unnormal” for urban consumers, says Jan Johnson, who heads up Millennium Research and moderated the Midwest Dairy consumer panel. Some consumers she researchs are even more driven to find and buy food specific to their needs, wants and life philosophies.


Second, people’s taste vary—a lot. Almost all of the panel participants like, even love, cheese. “When you say cheese, I feel happy,” responded one. But another participant didn’t like cheese because its consistency was too dry. “Unless it’s on pizza, I don’t eat cheese,” she says.


Yogurt was another favorite, though some worried it has too much added sugar. Cottage cheese was another favorite, particularly of the male participant who is a gymnastics coach. He says it is a very convenient snack and a cheap source of both calories (he eats 3,500 calories a day) and protein.


Fluid milk was a non-starter for most of the participants, some saying they haven’t drunk milk since they were teenagers and forced by their parents to drink it. There were contrasts here as well. “I’ll get yelled at if I come home with fat-free milk,” says one of the moms on the panel. Said another: “I typically buy low-fat milk because I prefer its taste—but I grew up drinking low-fat.”


Third, this panel’s participants were price sensitive to organic products. While some bought organic dairy products, they acknowledged they likely wouldn’t do so if the price spread between conventional and organic was 10 to 20% higher. One mom on the panel was willing to pay extra for organic milk for her kids. “I’d be willing to pay $1 to $3 more for organic for them,” she says.


The controversy over GMO (genetically modified organisms) food was confusing to panelists. “It’s a mixed and muddled topic—it’s such a mess,” says one panelist. Another panelist won’t buy any product unless it’s labeled “non-GMO” while a third didn’t think GMO-produced food is bad.


Fourth, consumers on the panel still hold farmers in high regard. While some had no family connection, two had grown up on small farms. They remember their childhoods fondly, but also remember how hardworking their parents were. Those who aren’t connected to a farm tended to view it as an idyllic lifestyle, and preferred small farms to commercial operations. One panelist, though, has changed her thinking after visiting with a farming friend. The controlled environment of a freestall barn on a large farm might be better for cow comfort than pastured cows outside in all types of weather and constantly fighting flies, she says.  


Fifth, it seems clear panel participants don’t know who to trust for nutrition guidance and advice. Some turn to their friends, especially if those friends are more physically fit and active. Others listen to podcasts of famous chefs, and some put some faith in celebrity and athlete diet advice. A few of the participants listen to their doctors.


What the panel demonstrates, says Lucas Lentsch, MDA CEO, is that “consumer preferences are as diverse as stars in the sky.”


Fortunately, the panel demonstrated that consumers will listen to farmers if they feel a connection to them. “Farmer credibility [with consumers] is holding,” says Lentsch. In consumers’ minds, farmers are connected to the land, and if a consumer knows a farmer, they feel they know the person behind the product. In that sense, consumers feel like they know where their food comes from, he says.


“To maintain authenticity with consumers, dairy farmers just need to be who they are,” says Lentsch.


At the same time, there are difference in mind-set. Like my dad, farmers typically see food as a necessity. Consumers see it as a fulfillment of many needs—nutrition, health, safety, feelings of well-being, comfort and nostalgia. They even buy special foods for their children out of mom- and dad-guilt that they’re not spending enough time with them.


The controversy over GMO foods is just one example of the challenges facing the food industry. “This is just part of the minefield we’re in,” says Lentsch. “We can’t put GMOs back in the bottle…Science can tell us that we can do all of these things. Society tells us if we can.”