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Rising Star: Local Continues Its Ascent As A Marker Of Quality And Trust

farm fresh locally grown vegetables and fruitsAs a mark of premium distinction, foods and beverages with a local angle have been rising stars within a crowded field of designations that speak to premium quality, including organic and natural, "free-of" products and those that are artisanal or handmade. The Hartman Group has been tracking the term's meteoric rise to stardom for years now. In our Organic & Natural 2014 report, we found that "the authenticity halo around organic and natural has begun to fade, and local foods and beverages are poised to surpass them as a symbol of trust and transparency." 

Local is an even bigger deal today. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which both supports and tracks the local food infrastructure within the United States, recently estimated annual sales of local food and beverage products at over $11 billion. Elaborating on the topic, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, in an interview with NPR's The Salt, notes, "'Local food is rapidly growing from a niche market to an integrated system recognized for its economic boost to communities across the country.'" 

What makes local “special” from the consumer’s perspective? 

Support of community and regional economics and foodways is one significant element. Where, earlier, local acted as a philosophical bridge between organic and natural, today the term offers a compelling narrative that resonates with many salient food trends and consumer concerns, including the following central ideas: 

Local offers greater transparency and trust

  • Consumers believe local producers and small farmers have more integrity and are deeply invested in the quality of their products
  • Shorter commodity chains, smaller scales of production and proximity to the sources of their food bolster consumer trust
  • The ability to engage with and ask questions of local producers speaks to the desire for transparency and reciprocal relationships, which consumers feel is missing with bigger companies (62 percent of consumers say they “try to understand where their products are made,” and 56 percent say that they “try to buy products made in their region”) (Source: Transparency 2015 report, The Hartman Group)

Local is seen as fresher and more seasonal and has strong linkages to organic shoppers

  • Consumers understand that products that travel shorter distances are likely fresher
  • Smaller production signals food that is in tune with the seasons and the unique qualities of the locale from which it comes
  • Organic shoppers find local highly appealing: 35 percent of organic buyers said they were buying more local products today than a year ago (Figure 1)

percent of consumers buying more from last year

  • Consumers attribute better taste and, in some cases, nutrition, to local foods
  • Purchasing locally produced food provides consumers with a sense of contributing to and supporting small farmers and their community
  • Local is seen to minimize carbon footprint: Consumers visualize the notion that shorter supply chains represent environmental benefits by requiring less fuel for transport 

Marketing Local

There is a strong upside to marketing “local,” especially for retailers and restaurants where consumers see them as trusted allies in their quest for transparency and authenticity. Local retailers and restaurants are seen as excelling in taking a stand on issues and demonstrating alignment with consumers’ values and priorities that link to local. These include pledges to support local small producers, not carry GMOs and not stock unethical brands, and being transparent about menu ingredients on prepared foods.

In restaurants and food service, the farm-to-table movement has inspired a cultural shift toward locally produced products with accompanying links to transparency and authenticity. As cultural icons, chefs are influential figures who help set the course for broader trends in food culture that link to “local,” as demonstrated in these observations from Hartman Group findings:

  • The rise of restaurants that specialize in locally sourced products is emblematic of the emerging importance of local products
  • Locally sourced ingredients on restaurant and food service menus are seen as fresher and seasonal
  • Locally sourced menu ingredients resonate with consumers seeking the authenticity of small-scale production and the distinction of place: Among the 42 percent of consumers who are “sustainable-receptive,” 62 percent believe that “sustainable foods and beverages” (which include those that are local) are better for their communities (Source: Diners’ Changing Behaviors: Wellness, Sustainability and Where to Eat 2015 report, The Hartman Group)
  • Local is a distinction that means more than organic to deeply engaged consumers who might believe that many small farmers cannot afford certification but nonetheless produce high-quality foods with integrity 

Buying local is a big deal today, and we believe there is room for it to continue to exert its influence for years to come. Local is an on-trend cue of quality with strong links to healthier, more sustainable lifestyles and gourmet food experiences as well as even stronger ties to the sentiments of supporting one’s communities, economy and environment. The upside to marketing “buy local” remains in being transparent and authentic. 


Consumer Package Goods Organic/Natural Sustainability


As leaders in the study of American food culture, The Hartman Group has been tracking how Americans shop for food since the 1990s. From one-stop shopping to multichannel shopping to online markets and click-and-collect, we continue to track consumers’ evolving perceptions, needs, habits and relationships with food retailers. New to the 2017 report is a special section on the expansion of the discount grocery channel, the emerging fresh-format channel and smaller-footprint retail formats.


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