Sustainability Issue #1 February 2011

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This is how the consumer chooses food and drink

Governed by psychology. An interdisciplinary project equips test subjects with PalmPilot or iPods that beep when it is time for the participants to key in their current status regarding pressure of time, state of mind and hunger, and to report on their consumption decisions. The project is intended to result in a model that can make the food and drink industry more competitive.  Photo: Mikael Röhr

This is how the consumer chooses food and drink

By Staffan Ljung

To understand how a consumer is thinking and acting is often difficult. Intentions and attitudes are only vaguely related to actual behaviour. Quite often, the consumer says one thing but acts in a completely different way.

One practical example is that, in  questionnaire surveys, many consumers say that they often buy organic goods. But when they are in the shop it is the goods without environmental labels that end up in the basket, says Annika Åström who is a sensor technologist and project leader at Swedish Institute  for Food and Biotechnology SIK.

Annika Åström is talking about a new three-year research project in which SIK and Göteborg University are collaborating on developing new knowledge on how consumers behave when they are choosing food.

Sensory responses and associations

The project is entitled "The choce of food by consumers – how, why and when?" and is unique in view of its interdisciplinary method. The research team will work across several disciplines. Apart from the sensor technologists of SIK and experts in consumer psychology at Göteborg University, a number of food and drink companies are deeply involved in the project. The objective of the research is to identify what are the explanations for consumers' decisions. What are the consumers thinking about when they make a choice in the food shop? On what grounds do they make the decisions that result in a purchase?

Considered choice? This customer had perhaps intended to buy more organic goods. But for various reasons the result is different. Photographer: Bo Håkansson/Bilduppdraget.

Just as the choice of a car or running shoes, the choice of food is hardly a strictly rational process. It is not possible to think about and evaluate all the hundreds of possibilities that are offered when the costomer is standing in front of a deep freeze cabinet and is to choose food for dinner. It is then sensory responses and associations that come into play and become the decisive factors. The decision to buy a certain product is governed by factors such as impulses, how the product affects one's self image and social aspects such as "how others see me". It is this complex decision making system that the research team wants to penetrate and research into.

Taste and psychology

There are investigations which show that between 70 and 90 per cent of all investments in new food products are unsuccessful, which is obviously expensive for the companies. This fact is to a large extent explained by the lack of knowledge of the way sensory and psychological factors together influence consumer decisions - knowledge that is not easy to acquire.

Both sensory aspects (how the product tastes) and psychological  aspects (cognitive-affective values), as well as individual differences, will be documented. Since the processes the researchers are interested in are implicit and to a large extent subconscious, use will be made of experimental methods and measures developed in current sensory and psychological research.

Descriptive model

The objective of this project is to penetrate much deeper than typical focus groups, market surveys and previous projects in this field, in understanding the underlying factors.

Those engaged in the research project are planning to carry out a series of studies in order to experimentally vary and measure the influence of these factors in a purchasing situation. Tasting tests, experiments and field studies, in which the consumers are followed in real purchasing situations, as well as in-depth interviews, are to result in a model of the decision making process by the consumers.

One interesting technique that will be used in the project is called experience sampling. In order to follow individuals in their everyday lives, the project equips the test subjects with portable equipment such as a PalmPilot or an iPod. The equipment contains a test programme that beeps at random five to seven times a day. When this occurs, the participants must estimate their current status regarding e.g. pressure of time, mood and hunger, and report their consumption decisions.

A model of how the value judgments of different consumers are activated in different purchasing situations (for example pleasure shopping as against everyday consumption shopping) may be a tool for researchers and the users of the research, i.e. food and drink companies, in understanding the choices made by consumers.  With this model as the basis, it is possible to create new products and purchasing situations, to design information and to define target groups. This will also create tools for the description of different customers segments.

To know more about how and why consumers choose certain food products in certain situations will, with a high degree of probability, confer several advantages on food and drink companies. The industry will have a better opportunity to predict and to provide the market with food and drink that the consumer appreciates and has confidence in.

- In such a way, a more competitive and sustainable food and drink sector will be created, says Annika Åström.

Must make a decision

One of the participating companies is Abba Seafood that has classic products such as Kalles Kaviar, Grebbestads and Ejdern it its range. Mats Lennersten is product development director of the company and hopes that the research project will result in two things: better understanding of how consumers act and improved competence on the part of food and drink companies. Mats points out that today's consumers must all the time make decisions about a huge number of new facts with regard to food and drink. It is a matter of having an attitude to environmental and fairtrade labelling and warnings about everything from fats, sugar and additives to poisons and other harmful contents. But what it is that creates permanent changes in behaviour is difficult to predict, he says.

- The alarm about acrylamide a few years ago is a good example. The sales of crisps dropped after the alarm, but the effect was quite short lived. This made one wonder what it is that really means something for the consumer. What is it that has such an effect that habits are changed? This is what we as food producers would like to know more about, says Mats Lennersten.


The food choice of consumers

In the project "The food choice of consumers – how, why and when? which extends from 2011 to 2013, those taking part are Swedish Institute  for Food and Biotechnology SIK, Göteborg University, Findus, Campbell Soup, Abba Seafood, Fazer and Pågen. The project is funded by Formas, Vinnova and the participating companies.


Author :

Staffan Ljung is Press Officer at SP, Technical Research Institute of Sweden.

Responsible for this page: Birgitta Bruzelius

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