Alternative networks foster food trust and loyalty, says report

By Jess Halliday

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Food, Consumer protection

Research published this week into alternative food networks
indicates that direct contact with food producers can garner
greater trust and loyalty - important elements in building
successful food brands.

The last few years have seen a rise in alternative distribution networks, particularly in the UK, and such networks have built up businesses based around consumer concerns - such as fair trade, food miles, animal welfare and simply wanting to know where the food we eat comes from. The report, called Re-connecting consumers, food and producers: exploring 'alternative' networks​, was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and conducted by a researchers at the Universities of Coventry, Hull, Birkbeck (London) and Warwick. It gives an interesting insight into the mind of the modern ethical consumer, and highlights priorities that food manufacturers may which to take into consideration for their own marketing strategies. "Consumers enjoyed being able to ask the producers about their products, and felt reassured about the quality and safety of the food,"​ said lead researcher Moya Kneafsey of Coventry University. "Alternative food schemes enable consumers to make a direct connection with food producers, and can result in relationships of trust and loyalty." "There is potential for manufacturers to channel products through small alternative networks as long as they genuinely meet consumer requirements for more environmentally sound, healthy and fairly traded products,"​ she told She stressed that many consumers mistrust supermarkets in terms of product quality, manufacturing processes and trading practices. There is potential, then, for alternative retail outlets to cash in on this by establishing more transparent and greener methods of production and retail. The consumers involved in the study said they were prepared to pay more for certain products which they believed to be of better quality and better for people, animals and plane. In the case of organic chicken, for instance, they said they would buy it less often and simply eat less meat. Another noteworthy point for manufacturers was that people were particularly keen to buy organic and 'quality' foods for their babies and young children. By appealing to consumers' ethical preoccupations, these small businesses are moving in on an area that supermarkets have ignored until quite recently. Kneafsey told FoodNavigator that it is difficult to quantify the movement since there is no generally accepted definition of the term alternative network. But the Soul Association estimates there are now several hundred box schemes in the UK, with sales of over £100m. Despite consumers' finding a rapport with the underlying ethos, the researchers found that future development of small alternative food networks is could be threatened by supermarkets cottoning on, and moving in on the same area. For instance, some large retailers are seeking to create a sense of connection with the food producer by including names and pictures of producers, amongst other marketing strategies. While some of the box schemes are moving semi-national - Abel and Cole and Riverfood Organics, for instance, both of which tap into the organic movement - some supermarket alternatives do not wish to expand for fear of losing the all-important sense of connection between producers and consumers. However for the purposes of the research, Kneafsey and team excluded any programmes that did not consist of a direct relationship between producer and consumer - that is, no middle-man. "Abel and Cole for example would not fit into our definition as they source products from many different growers,"​ said Kneafsey. "The great advantage of the examples we looked at was that profits were going straight back to the producers."​ The researchers carried the research using six case studies, which were selected to give a sample of the different alternative food networks in different geographical regions. These were: an organic box scheme in Cambridgeshire; a farm shop in Somerset; a farm with a shop with stalls at farmers' markets in Somerset; and an urban market garden in Sandwell that delivers bags of vegetables to the neighbourhood; a community supported agriculture scheme in Moray, Scotland; and an 'adopt a sheep' scheme in Italy (internet-based). The managers of these schemes were interviewed twice in the space of a year. Two rounds of consumer interviews were also conducted, with workshops involving 89 consumers and detailed interviews involving 44. Six households gave detailed qualitative research, and other consumers contributed using an online questionnaire.

Related topics: Market Trends

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