Supermarket shopper habits follow an ‘organic staircase,’ study finds

By Will Chu

- Last updated on GMT

©iStock/Ofir Peretz
©iStock/Ofir Peretz
Organic consumers appear to be creatures of habit, preferring to buy more and more organic produce and following a progressively predictable shopping routine.

These are the findings of Danish research, in which its authors found those buying a first organic product from the supermarket, are more likely to continue buying organic, adding to product type and variation over time.

“In connection with organic consumption, there has previously been talk of an 'organic staircase' in the sense that consumers are generally buying certain organic products before others,”​ said Dr John Thøgersen, is professor of economic psychology at the Department of Management at Aarhus University.

“But our research shows that in fact we're dealing with an escalator where the upwards movement is taking place automatically.

“Once you've purchased your first organic product, you're not likely to stop. You'll continue and over time, you'll increase your organic shopping list. And you'll even be following a rather predictable consumption pattern."

Different staircases and escalators

The findings, extracted from the daily shopping habits of around 10,000 households over a period of 20 months, may help explain the demand for organic produce, of which Denmark leads the world.

According to Head of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) at Coop Thomas Roland, they might also be used to target the marketing of organic products to specific customer segments as a way of speeding up the “organic escalator”​.

"In reality, we can use a number of different staircases or escalators. Based on the researchers' analyses, we have been able to establish a number of organic consumer segments,”​ he said.

“We conducted a test in which we exposed each of the segments to specific marketing messages. This has increased the organic consumption significantly in these customer groups,"

He added that he saw great opportunities in analysing customers' actual purchasing patterns rather than relying on more traditional consumer analyses that are often based on attitude measurement.

Published in the Journal of Consumer Research​, the study used data provided by Danish supermarket giant Coop, with researchers from Aarhus University, led by Professor Thøgersen.

Here, all registered transactions over 20 months from 8,704 randomly selected customers with a loyalty card were analysed using a hidden Markov model, to capture the patterns in consumers’ purchases.

One of the more typical shopping habits found in the study started with the purchase of dairy products, which then moved onto vegetables, eggs, baking ingredients until shoppers consistently bought organic products.

Habitual organic food buyers

“What's interesting is that something is making the organic consumers stick to their guns,”​ said Dr  Thøgersen.

“Something is making them stand fast. Our study doesn't tell us anything about why this is the case, but if we include our knowledge from previous research in the area, we're able to make an educated guess."

Dr Thøgersen refers to those studies that point to the sustainability and environmental aspects that most consumers associate with organic products.

"It becomes a way in which we define ourselves. As a result, we build an identity around the notion of buying organic products, and we're highly unlikely to suddenly change our moral values,"​ he added.

Organic food in Europe

In Denmark, milk is the typical entry into organic consumption. But milk is not the organic product with the greatest market share. Oatmeal is. However, in terms of volume, milk is by far the main organic product.

With more than half the population eating organic at least once a week, figures released by GfK ConsumerScan found the Danish sector grew by 18% in the second half of 2016 alone, making 10% of all food sales organic.

In countries such as France, 6.5% of the country's total agricultural land is used for organic production. During the first six months of 2017, organic sales increased by €500m year-on-year. The organic sector was worth €7bn in revenues for 2016.

Meanwhile, organic sales in Britain make up 1.8% of food purchases. However, according to the British Soil Association, the sector is slowly growing with total organic sales rising by 7.1% in 2016 and a UK organic market valued at €2.09bn.

Source: Journal of Consumer Research

Published online ahead of print: doi.org/10.1093/jcr/ucx052

“Will the Consistent Organic Food Consumer Step Forward? An Empirical Analysis.”

Authors: Hans Jørn Juhl  Morten H. J. Fenger  John Thøgersen

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