Berry consumption within the United States has been trending upward over the last decade. According to USDA estimates, consumption of fresh raspberries (R. idaeus), strawberries [Fragaria ×ananassa (Weston) Duchesne ex Rozier (pro sp.)], and blueberries (V. corymbosum) have seen continuous growth from 2002 to 2012. During this period, per capita consumption of raspberries, strawberries, and blueberries has increased by 440%, 67%, and 243%, respectively (USDA Economic Research Service, 2014). Further, berries have become one of the leading and fastest growth categories in fresh produce departments (Cook, 2012; The Nielson Company, 2015). As noted in The Wall Street Journal, food companies are seeking out new types of berries to appeal to increased consumer demand (Chaker, 2013). Such berries include aronia (A. mitschurinii), black currant (R. nigrum), bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus L.), elderberry (Sambucus nigra L.), and goji berry (Lycium barbarum L.). Given the health benefits of berries, especially new varieties, they have received widespread attention in both the academic literature (Lawless et al., 2012; Mohebalian et al., 2012, 2013) and in media coverage, including USA Today, Men’s Journal, The Wall Street Journal, and Fox News (Beck, 2014; Chaker, 2013; Fong, 2013; Kilham, 2013).
In particular, aronia berries are gaining popularity within the United States due to their high antioxidant content (Beck, 2014; McKay, 2001). Aronia berries have been commercially grown in European countries since the 1950s (Hannan, 2013). Currently, aronia production is occurring throughout the United States with a majority of production in the Midwest (Everhart, 2011) with increasing production in New England. However, unlike many berries, such as blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, etc., aronia berries have an astringent/bitter flavor which could be a drawback for many consumers. A key potential advantage to aronia berries is their high antioxidant content which is higher than all competing berries. Given the increased demand for healthy local food, especially produce [see popular press articles by DiMartino (2016), Gagliardi (2015), and Kennell (2016)], many U.S. producers are examining the raw berry market and looking for ways to produce and sell aronia berries. In attempting to compete against “sweet” berries, it is essential for aronia producers to understand how taste and health messaging impact consumer WTP.
The main objective of this paper was to evaluate how consumers value a new-to-market berry (aronia) in contrast to another relatively new berry (black currant), as well as more traditional berries (raspberry, blueberry, and blackberry). Our hypothesis was that aronia and black currant would be less preferred than more traditional berries given they is a higher level of familiarity. As noted by Monroe (1976), brand familiarity is a dominant cue in a consumer’s decision process. Even though raspberry, blueberry, and blackberry are not brands, consumers are most likely more familiar with these berries and would most likely choose them over black currant or aronia.
To raise awareness and sales of these new berries, producers and retailers may want to label taste and/or health information to spur interest in new berries, especially given taste is an experience attribute (i.e., evaluated only after the berry is consumed). Clark (1998) noted that taste is an important factor in food choice whereas McFarlane and Pliner (1997) reported that nutritional information can impact willingness to try a novel food. Furthermore, nutritional information can positively impact satisfaction while also impacting food selection (Cranage et al., 2003). Therefore, we examined the impact of potentially negative taste information (aronia berries have an astringent/bitter flavor) and positive health messaging (aronia have a high antioxidant content) on aronia berry preference. We also hypothesized that providing only taste information would decrease WTP for aronia given the astringent/bitter flavor is often thought of in a negative light (Steiner, 1977). However, we hypothesize that the health information will have a positive impact on WTP since high antioxidant levels and perceived health benefits associated with the antioxidant levels would provide a benefit for which consumers will pay a premium. Roosen et al. (2007) and Hu et al. (2012) note that health relevant product information can impact consumer choice. Of key interest is whether health information, when provided with taste information, can offset any negative WTP associated with the astringent/bitter flavor of aronia. We hypothesize that providing health information (expected positive WTP) in conjunction with taste information (expected negative WTP) will offset WTP to a level that is equivalent to the no information treatment.
In conducting the experiment, we also had a secondary objective to better understand consumer WTP at various retail outlets when berries were labeled as local, regional, United States, or grown outside United States. As noted by Hu et al. (2009), local labeling can be an important factor in the purchase of blueberries. Furthermore, we were interested in whether WTP differences exist for locally labeled berries sold at either a farmer’s market, farm stand, or grocery store. Our hypothesis was that locally labeled berries sold at a farmer’s market and farm stand would have a higher WTP than locally labeled berries sold at a grocery store.
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