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Local Heroes

What words resonate most with consumers? “Free” usually works—but not always, as most of us have received enough junk mail to know that free doesn’t always mean free.

Setting free aside, “fresh” is the word today that most resonates with consumers. It implies health benefits and taste that other words simply can’t convey, whether "healthy," "nutritious," "wholesome" or the cumbersome "better-for-you." That’s why you see fresh in so many marketing campaigns, such as Subway (“Eat Fresh”), the American Frozen Food Institute (“Frozen: How Fresh Stays Fresh”) and Food Lion (“How Refreshing”). A number of other groups have worked “fresh” into their names. That is one of the reasons our NACS initiative is called reFresh.

There is one other word rapidly growing in popularity: “local.” And in many cases, the two words are linked. Programs around the country stress “buy fresh, buy local” with the premise that if it is local, it is fresh.

There is no shared connotation of either fresh or local. To some, local means the product came from the same state. But that definition doesn’t really work, because some states are very large and some are very small. And some farms are near state borders. There is a great local orchard 20 minutes from my house in Virginia—but it’s in Maryland. So it’s not local?

At the other end, some consider local to be about 400 miles—or the approximate distance that a delivery truck can travel in a single day. In between is the most common definition of local: something that comes from less than 100 miles away.

Just as there are variations on definitions, there are variations related to price. People expect to pay more at farmer’s markets for local produce. On the other hand, those same consumers expect local produce in supermarkets to be lower priced than other produce because they assume delivery costs are lower.

As convenience retailers continue to grow their produce offers, the lack of clarity can present both challenges and opportunities. You certainly don’t want to overpromise and disappoint customers. For example, one produce-related company emphasized local in their marketing but showed a banana in their annual report. One observer pointed out that bananas aren’t widely grown in the continental United States, and thousands of print pieces had to hit the recycling bin.

But there are opportunities—and they extend beyond fresh produce. On my travels this summer filming Ideas 2 Go, I saw how stores are getting new customers by selling local—including packaged food items (or dog treats) from local businesses, select general merchandise and especially beer. And the best thing is, you already carry these categories.

I can say more about how to grow sales with local beer but I’ll save that for the Ideas 2 Go General Session on October 20 at the NACS Show in Atlanta. And I will stand by that promise—unlike those marketers who ruined the word free. (I’m looking at you, bars with the sign: “Free beer tomorrow.”)

Jeff Lenard is the NACS vice president of strategic industry initiatives. He can be reached at jlenard@nacsonline.com or (703) 518-4272.