While it may seem completely counterintuitive, this downward economic climate produces a very interesting opportunity to promote organic foods. I appreciate what may be your first thought here, “but how can selling, what by most accounts is the most expensive food category in the marketplace, have much of an opportunity space during the worst economy we have seen in years?” Thinking along these lines puts you in the company of some very bright and thoughtful people – it just tends to make sense. However, I think that there is a slight twist in all of this that may be easy to overlook, and also has the potential to ring true. So, here’s my case:
Our current economic model is not based on balance or sustainability – that much seems pretty apparent to everyone no matter what their political stripes. Our economy is based on growth. Every fiscal year must be stronger than the last – that is the conventional wisdom. Each year must show substantial growth or our economy is viewed as weak, or even worse, it begins to decline to the point where people’s lives are deeply and tragically affected. This is where we are now. Our economy has indeed grown – perhaps overgrown – and now it is seeking balance. Our economic model, as it is, is unsustainable. Like nature, our economy must adapt, change and now find its balance in order to survive.
While our current economic woes have altered and devastated many lives, it has also created an unusual opportunity for us to move forward into a new economy that does not rely so heavily on constant growth. Don’t get me wrong, growth is important, but it must be sustainable growth if it will endure the test of time. The opportunity that is before all of us in the organic and natural foods industry is to recognize that we are sustainability experts; we have actually been selling and promoting sustainability for years. And, since sustainability is the direction that we must now move towards – it is time to call upon our wisdom and share our expertise.
Right now, the American people seem to get it. They understand that whether it is our fuel supply, our economy, or our health care system, what is needed is something that will endure not only for the next 20 years, but will continue to provide for future generations. If the national conversation today were focused on how we deliver our food supply, organic sustainable agriculture would surely be front and center as part of this dialogue. People want new systems, for sure, but above all else, they want sustainability; and sustainability is at the core of what the organic industry is all about.
What has significantly changed in recent months is that people are ready to hear a different message; people are ready for long-term solutions and not short-term quick fixes. This shift certainly favors the organic industry.
So, what do we do? For starters, we get very bold with our messaging. For retailers, the price point of organic food has often been what trips up the message. No matter how healthy it may be or how earth-friendly it is grown, many people just aren’t willing to pay 15-20% more for their food. So, the discussion usually drifts back to cost/price and this has never been the apparent strength or selling point of our conversation . . . until now. In our current political and economic climate, suddenly the arguments about sustainability and long term cost savings are ringing true. People are now ready to accept a long-range vision that provides for future generations. This is a significant paradigm shift and one that we must take advantage of.
Retailers of organic foods, like many other retailers, are seeing a decline in their business during this “New Economy”. And, while there are many operational and merchandising changes that can be made in order to adapt to this decline – such as promoting less expensive private brands, running more high-profile specials, sampling, and strategic product placement – the real opportunity lies in promoting organic foods as the LEAST expensive food alternative! That’s right, people are now ready to hear that it’s not just about the money they spend at the register; it’s about the overall cost of our food supply. If this becomes the conversation, we cannot lose. And how does this become the conversation? That is the new mission for retailers of organic food. The ticket out of this economic decline for organic and natural foods retailers is to promote organic products, not only as the future of the environment and healthy living, but as the future of our new economy. You have the wind at your back. The conversation is in your favor. If it’s not sustainable, people are in the mood to reject it.
It’s time for all of us in the Organic Industry to truly embrace our own product. We should not shy away from talking about the cost of our food. If there is one thing that we can take away from our current situation, it’s that you cannot measure costs without examining their long-term financial impact. We have always had the advantage when we market and promote organic food as the healthy choice. It’s good for people and good for the planet. That has been difficult to contest. But now, we have a real opportunity to promote our product as the most cost efficient and most fiscally responsible choice. We should not let this opportunity slip away. As the old Chinese proverb reminds us, “If we do not change our direction, we are likely to end up where we are headed.”