The world is full of unattractive fruits and vegetables, such as lumpy, misshapen, or discolored potatoes, carrots, apples, and strawberries, that are fresh and good to eat. This produce tastes the same as its cosmetically blessed cousins, so why won’t consumers buy it?
A new study in the Journal of Marketing examines this long-term problem to understand why consumers avoid unattractive, but edible fruits and vegetables – and how to overcome this marketing and sales issue. We found a surprising underlying cause … buying unattractive produce negatively impacts consumers’ view of themselves, causing a drop in self-perceptions.
This thorny challenge has multiple consequences. Farmers leave up to 30% of their produce in the field because it isn’t aesthetically pleasing enough to pick and sell. Grocery retailers, who operate on razor-thin margins, trash up to $15.4 billion of edible fruits and vegetables each year. Restaurants also discard unpleasing produce. And all of this food waste occurs at a time when agricultural sustainability is more important than ever.
Typically, retailers take one of two approaches to selling ugly produce, positively marketing the imperfections and/or slashing prices by 30% to 50%. Consumers, meet Intermarche’s “Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables” campaign, Asada’s “Imperfect Produce,” and Giant Eagle’s “Produce with Personality.” While clever, retailers question whether these strategies are effective or sustainable enough to move the merchandise over time.
Motivating consumers to buy ugly fruits and vegetables could help maximize use of important resources while decreasing food waste and shortages. Our team interviewed grocery store owners in Sweden to assess their perceptions and strategies for managing the sale of unattractive produce. Each store was individually owned and operated, meaning that the study participants controlled their purchasing and merchandising decisions.
Our team rated grocers’ attitudes, finding that:
- Consumers expressly avoid unattractive produce nearly all the time (4.34 on a scale of 1 = not at all to 6 = all the time).
- Consumers’ attitudes towards ugly fruits and vegetables increase store waste (3.91 on the same scale) and lost sales (2.86 on a scale of 1 = not at all to 5 = a great deal).
Consumers’ aversion to unattractive produce impacts grocers’ business in the following ways:
- Some 34% of store owners just throw out substandard fruits and vegetables and another 34% discount it significantly. To sell ugly produce, grocers offer a 45% discount on average.
- Other strategies include blending unattractive produce in with other produce (21%) and repurposing it for other uses in the store so that it is not sold whole (11%).
- None of the store owners surveyed used advertising or digital displays to encourage the purchase of unattractive produce. However, these grocers acknowledged a lack of confidence (1.93 on a scale of 1 = not at all confident to 5 = a great deal confident about their marketing and sales strategies).
This research demonstrates that consumers devalue unattractive produce because of altered self-perception, increasing negative self-image and decreasing their willingness to buy it when more attractive options are available. Consumers have the same response even when they imagine themselves consuming ugly fruits and vegetables.
Fortunately, there is an easy fix: boost consumers’ self-esteem. Our research indicates that:
- Providing in-store advertising with targeted messaging (e.g., “You are fantastic! Pick ugly produce!”) increases shoppers’ willingness to buy unattractive produce by 22.4%.
- Retailers who use self-esteem-boosting ads can drive 12.6% more revenue (discounting ugly fruit by 30%) or 6.5% more revenue (at a 50% discount) than when they run generic ads with only product information.
Grocers can use this research to create simple, but highly effective ads that drive sales of ugly fruits and vegetables while decreasing discounts and increasing sales and margins. When used systematically, targeted advertising could help increase consumer acceptance of ugly fruits and vegetables and reduce food waste in farmers’ fields and stores. Society also benefits through agricultural and sales practices that are more sustainable and help feed more people.
From: Lauren Grewal, Jillian Hmurovic, Cait Lamberton, and Rebecca Walker Reczek (2019), “The Self-Perception Connection: Why Consumers Devalue Unattractive Produce,” Journal of Marketing, 83 (1), 89-107.