How One Vegetable Seed Company Is Using Automated Displays to Connect With Consumers
Imagine you’re shopping for produce at your local supermarket and you come across an automated display that asks you what tomato you prefer. On the surface of the display are two varieties labeled simply A and B. “Why not?” you say, popping one of the A cherry-sized tomatoes into your mouth. Its sweet, peppery flavor is satisfying, but the B variety is even better — delivering just the right amount of tangy sourness you love. Within less than a minute, you’ve voted for your favorite, enjoyed a delightful snack and moved on. What you may not realize is you’ve just played an important role in helping define what a tomato might taste like in the future.
Meet the “Experience Box” — one of the latest innovations from De Ruiter® vegetable seeds. This interactive in-store device is taking consumer preference testing to the next level by giving audiences engaging sensory experiences and collecting data in real time. And it’s kind of fun.
“It’s interesting to watch people use the Experience Box,” says Svetlana Tokunova, a marketing manager for De Ruiter vegetable seeds business unit of the Crop Science division at Bayer. “People love to try something new. And when they push the button, you can see they’re pleased that their vote has been counted. The whole experience has been engineered to be engaging, easy and enjoyable.”
The Tricky Business of Consumer Preference
While the Experience Box is meant to be easy, getting to the bottom of taste preferences can be incredibly difficult. To begin with, genetic differences result in every person perceiving taste and smell slightly differently. Cultural and geographic influences further add variety to our preferences, resulting in a wide variance in what makes the “perfect” pepper, cucumber or melon.
"Taste and preferences are regional- and country-specific — even neighboring countries such as the Netherlands and Germany and countries across Scandinavia each have clear differences in preference when it comes to tomatoes," according to Aurélie Lamotte, a sales manager for De Ruiter vegetable seeds in northern Europe. "Flavor components such as texture, taste, aroma and appearance are highly complex and have very interesting interdependencies when it comes to consumer liking."
So, why go to all the trouble of creating something like the Experience Box? Because new varieties are typically bred years in advance before coming to market, determining consumer preference is an incredibly important part of the vegetable seed industry. Seed companies can bring promising varieties to the market earlier, giving farmers and grocers more successful products sooner.
"Identifying future needs in genetics takes time and the earlier we connect to consumers and trends, the better," Says Chow-Ming, consumer sensory lead at Bayer’s Crop Science division. "Some of these varieties can take five to 10 years to define and develop."
Data, Data and More Data
The Experience Box is just one way De Ruiter vegetable seeds experts are gathering data to make sure its efforts are aligned with consumer tastes. Other information comes from its Sensory Science program that includes expert panels, nonexpert focus groups, large-scale consumer testing and taste tests at retail fairs. In 2018 alone, the company conducted 45 studies covering 100 different varieties of fruits and vegetables with consumers around the world.1 The results are translated by scientists into exact characteristics that breeders can target. Once a winning variety has been determined, the results are shared with growers so they know what's coming next.
"We regularly meet with growers and retailers to exchange and discuss consumer trend data," says Sharon MacGregor, Trade Partnership Manager. "Some growers are also marketing their own produce and are aware of the importance of trends and demands."
Produce is a highly competitive market and every detail can make or break a product, especially in an environment where consumers are becoming more savvy. As a result, retailers only give out programs for varieties they're confident will sell. Data from consumer testing shows retailers that a new variety can be successful. Growers, too, are looking for guidance. After all, a grower could miss out on potential contracts if they don't have the best new products available in line with the demands of the market.
While the Experience Box is still in its early stages, it's been deployed successfully in a variety of settings including farmers markets, auctions and shows like Germany's Fruit Logistica. So far, the main product featured in testing is tomatoes due to the variety they offer and their convenient size. However, Tokunova says that any crop can be tested — from cucumbers to peppers to melons. And she sees the Experience Box as a way to get insights beyond taste alone.
"The experience is capable of testing for a wide variety of factors including color and packaging," she says. "Recently, we used the Experience Box to test various presentation options for Strabena*, a tomato grown with a sturdy attachment to the vine. The test was engineered to test whether or not consumers prefer Strabena in traditional plastic packaging or sold on-vine in alternative packaging. It's not just about what varieties people prefer, but also HOW they prefer to purchase."
As exciting as the technology is, it's unlikely that the Experience Box will replace carefully supervised large scale consumer testing anytime soon. A large majority of the current research comes from studies that account for complex factors like participant screening, serving order, sample coding, questionnaire design and discretion response. For now, the Experience Box is well suited for interactive exercises to provide information in real time. With continued improvements, that immediacy could help power real-time product development decisions in the future.
"In terms of meaningful data, we're not quite there in terms of scale," says Tokunova. "But the technology is very promising in terms of scalability and ease of deployment. We've had it at events with up to 500 people where it's attracted a good amount of interaction. What's really exciting is seeing the results on our mobile devices as we're watching people vote."
Taste, Production and Sustainability
Ultimately, consumer preference isn't the only factor in determining the direction of fruit and vegetable breeding. The varieties have to work for the grower in the field as well, which requires vegetable seeds companies to work with agronomists and growers to make sure they're delivering seeds that will perform well. A melon, for example, could have outstanding sweet taste but fail to do well on the vine — or be robust in the field but not have the perfect hint of musk in its aroma. By getting the clearest view of what consumers want, plant researchers can focus on delivering seeds that strike the perfect balance between taste and performance.
And that brings us back to the grocery store where this all started. When the shelves are fuller with products people enjoy, more produce will find its way into people's diets and less of it will go to waste. Roughly one-third of the food produced for human consumption every year is thrown away — a large part of it fruits and vegetables.2
“Finding out what consumers really want can help cut down on food waste because our production will be closer aligned with consumption. That kind of efficiency also helps cut down on production inputs, which improves a grower’s bottom line,” says Tokunova. “Plus, if we can find new taste preferences, we can uncover new products that drive the industry forward.”
So, if you come across an Experience Box in your shopping, you might want to take a moment to try something new and make your opinion heard. Not only will you be helping researchers develop better tasting varieties but you'll also be helping shape more robust and more sustainable food production. That's certainly worth a quick survey.