They know what you're thinking. They record what you're typing. They're snatching up excerpts.
Though you may sometimes believe you're addressing an empty auditorium (hear that echo?), research companies are listening. And reporting.
One of the latest "well, this shouldn't be shocking" findings to cross my desk is the revelation that companies have now established themselves as experts on the "blogosphere," mining the web for blogs, newsgroups and comment threads that indicate consumer preferences. They then distill all they find into whitepapers and research to distribute to companies.
(This is a great business model, by the way... they dig through what's free for the taking, digest it, and sell the findings. It's like foraging in the woods for mushrooms, but with less physical mud beneath the fingernails.)
Case in point: the lead story on Umbria, a market intelligence company specializing in blog chatter. Umbria has determined that "Low Carb is Out, Organic is In" and has published a whitepaper to this effect.
From April through June, 2006, Umbria's agents monitored the blogosphere to understand key trends in Organic food purchasing, specifically: where, what, why and for whom.
They targeted their research for conversations about Wild Oats Markets, Whole Foods Market, Safeway and Wal-Mart and provide an "interesting cross-section of attitudes and trends related to Organic purchasing across a broad range of income levels and geographic accessibility."
I know you're busy and protective of your email address, so I'll summarize the results for you:
Those online talking about Organic foods are overwhelmingly female, a fact that's particularly interesting when you look at the total number of women (segmented into Boomer, Gen X and Gen Y age ranges) who blog and comment.It's only ten pages. You can go read it for yourself, but that's pretty much the gist of it.
Conversation was punctuated by the April release of Michael Pollan's hot-topic book, "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and Wal-Mart's May announcement of a big push into the Organic marketplace.
Wild Oats and Whole Foods tend to dominate discussions about Organic foods. Few bloggers seemed randy about trucking over to Wal-Mart for their Organics.
Women in the Gen Y group (15-30) appear to be the most salivation-worthy bunch from the perspective of retailers (apparently they love browsing and shopping at high-end Organic shops) and there's a "give 'em samples!" recommendation.
When it comes to Organic purchases, people are not as concerned about the environment, as they are about flavor, their health and the well-being of their kids and pets.
Also... some people think Organic foods are too expensive, snooty, hippie or just far too much ado about nothing.
Maybe I'm way off base here, but I really believe that the demise of the Organic philosophy came as soon as the US bill for the government certification of Organic foods was signed into law back in 2002. Wal-Mart just happens to be the most obvious of the nails in the Organic foods coffin.
Why? Well, it takes $400-$2,000/year and at least three years to be certified Organic by the government. That's meant to ensure quality and avoid fraud, but it's still a lot of cash for a little farm. Thereafter, there's a lot of paperwork and inspections. And if you grow organically managed lettuce but live beside to someone who chooses to spray, there's no way you can be certified.
That's why a lot of small-scale farmers choose to say they're "all natural" or "organically managed," or use "integrated pest management" (think: ladybugs).
Organic foods can be shipped from across the country or around the world, losing nutritive value as they age in transit, using up a bunch of fossil fuel in the process and robbing your local economy of an agricultural income source.
What Michael Pollan gets at is this: The absolute best way to ensure your vegetables are raised in the way in which you would grow them yourself (if only you had the time) is to know your farmers. We need to be able to look someone in the eye, have a conversation, and know that the eggs we're buying aren't from miserable, debeaked chickens stuffed into tiny laying boxes.
Unfortunately, we live in little enclaves separated from our local neighbors and craftsmen. We shop at big national stores, and we talk about those stores as if they ensure something virtuous for our food purchases. They don't. Walk around Whole Foods and do your own survey of what's local, what's Organic and what's conventionally sprayed produce flown in from Chile.
I wish I had the time and opportunity to source everything I buy. I can't. I have a day job. So I do the best I can. I get eggs, fruits and vegetables from my Community Supported Agriculture group, which is supplied by Eve, from Garden of Eve farm on Long Island. I've met her. She doesn't seem evil to me.
We get milk and yogurt from Hawthorn Valley Farm or Ronnybrook at the NYC Farmers' Markets.
J. picks up turkey sausage from DiPaolo farms and cheese and bread from Anne Saxelby at the Essex Street Market. She's passionate about cheese, she rides a cute bicycle and all her stuff is artisanally-made American foods.
That's not to say that I'm never going to savor a Hawaiian pineapple or a Florida orange. Sometimes you gotta get a nice box of Clementine oranges to stave off the scurvy. But the more you purchase locally from actual people, the more you do for your neighborhood, state and region.
Buying from local farmers means you stay in touch with the seasons (wow! the first pumpkins are showing up at the market! cool!), you feel proud about the successes of your neighbors, and you enjoy food quality and regional variety that just doesn't ship well.
Umbria can go on all they like about how hot Organic foods are. Maybe they are hot. But they're not the real answer.
The real answer is good food made by people who actually care about it and about you. And there's nobody who can slap a certification on that... except you.