30 June 2015 | MOF Team
On the recurrence of when tomatoes were first proven safe to eat, Matter Of Form looks at how consumer purchasing behaviour is being changed by the increasingly popular online grocery market.
On September 28, 1846 Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson had to consume a quantity of ripe tomatoes in front of an audience, in an effort to prove their edibility to the incorruptible Americans.
This need to validate and verify products through their physical state still continues to date, albeit in more subtle forms; description, colour, size, lighting, on-shelf positioning, price etc... all play a pivotal role in choice (Grunnert, 2002).
Of course, no more is this true than in the selection of one's fruit and veg; due in no small part to the transient nature of their being, and often very small window of optimal freshness and quality. In fact, a 2013 study into the role of credence labels on consumers' liking of tomatoes by the European Journal of Horticultural Science showed that ‘on-the-vine' tomatoes were the most frequently purchased format. Furthermore, the majority of participants preferred the taste of tomatoes when they were labelled as local and organic, even if in reality they weren't.
In the digital world tangibility becomes a bit more difficult. One cannot simply pick up a potentially good melon and give it a squeeze to see if it's ripe; because for the first time in our lives we are having to trust our online suppliers to provide us with decent fresh produce based on a photograph, despite the product not being standardised and processed in the same way as other FMCG offerings, which are overtly branded and easier to trust.
This shift requires a leap of faith. Arguably, as our shopping preferences become more digital in nature, our suppliers' brand trustworthiness will carry more and more importance (as believed by authors Richard Shepherd and Monique Raats, who penned The Psychology of Food Choice). Meaning that if I trust Tesco's to deliver a good punnet of fresh strawberries then I will likely return to them for more. Conversely, if I get a bad batch then perhaps I'll take my grocery shopping elsewhere, even if it is worth paying a little extra.
On the other hand, the rise in popularity of specialist online delivery services like Abel & Cole and Riverford Organic could suggest a different behaviour in the future; one where consumers start to break apart their shopping list once again; moving from one-stop-shops to using different trusted suppliers for their varying produce needs, in a slightly ironic digital anachronism of days gone past.
The need for a strong and consistent brand, from differentiation to delivery, is becoming increasingly important as consumers migrate online. For supermarkets this brings huge organisational and operational challenges, to prevent their margins and market share being eroded by smaller niche players. For the more specialist business looking to disrupt the apple cart, it shows the need for brutal focus and satisfaction across a core set of offerings, where scale may in fact be the enemy.