2018: the year of the organic escalator

By all indications, that is one easy prediction to make, that 2018 will be the year of the organic escalator, or the consumer pattern that features the locked-in purchase of organic products in ever-greater volume by families over time. Once on the escalator, that is, they tend to stay on it and increase organic's share of their total food budget.

The cool thing is not not just that their purchasing increases, but how. There is a sequence to the types of organic products you buy. Hence the escalator reference. You try one product, then add another to the shopping cart, then another, and so on, and there is no going back, according to researchers at Denmark's Aarhus University, who coined the escalator concept in a landmark late-2017 study.

"Our research shows we're dealing with an escalator where the upward movement is taking place automatically. Once you've purchased your first organic product, you're not likely to stop. You'll continue and over time, you'll increase your organic shopping list, and you'll even be following a rather predictable consumption pattern," says Professor John Thøgersen of Aarhus.

The first step tends to be dairy products, followed by vegetables, eggs, baking ingredients and others. At some point, you're locked in. Separate studies show that the percentage of families purchasing at least one organic food product is now well over half, varying across countries.

The escalator pattern can help food companies guide consumers accordingly, encouraging them to move on to the next step along the path in ways that accelerate organic's share-of-wallet.

The insight comes amid an uninterrupted rapid rise in the buying and consumption of organic food products around the world, in line with the Allied Market Research projection in late 2016 that the total market will grow to more than $327 billion by 2022, up dramatically from the $116 billion recorded in 2015.

The United States accounts for roughly 40% of the total, which in turn represents a whopping 5% of total food sales in the country, according to the U.S. Organic Trade Association. That share is growing quickly, with annual U.S. organic sales growing 8% vs. 1% for food as a whole.

Other studies have ventured into the psychology behind this explosion, in search of clues that can further help food companies push the right buttons to move consumers up the escalator at an even faster clip.

Thøgersen believes "it becomes a way in which we define ourselves. As a result, we build an identity around the notion of buying organic products, and we're highly unlikely to suddenly change our moral values." Other studies say it has more to do with raw health benefits, while freeing the environment from needless chemicals ranks higher among other consumers.

Whether health, identity or ecology, the genie is out of the bottle. Organic growth is here to stay and likely to accelerate significantly in 2018 as industry players discover the escalator paradigm and learn to deploy the strategies that trigger faster step-ups by consumers.