Getting to the core of apple preference: research peels back the mystery of consumer choice
When you reach for an apple in the grocery store, do you choose a crisp sweet blushing AmbrosiaTM, a juicy aromatic Salish®, or a tart bright red and green McIntosh? Is it taste that guides you, colour, or something else? Are you someone who can’t wait to try the latest apple variety, or do you prefer the apple you already know? Understanding what drives consumer choice is important knowledge for the science teams that breed new apples, allowing them to select traits that will lead to superior fruit and a robust apple industry. Developing an apple variety that not only grows well and resists pests and disease, but also appeals to the public, is an important aspect of the research.
The apple breeding program at the Summerland Research and Development Centre has been developing commercial apple varieties for decades. The team is currently led by Dr. Amritpal Singh, who builds on the past success of the program to create the next generation of apples that meet a growing checklist of physical requirements. He is also interested in producing apples that will have wide consumer appeal. This is where Dr. Masoumeh Bejaei comes in. Dr. Bejaei, a research scientist in sensory evaluation and consumer research, works with the breeding program to provide valuable information on consumer preference. Not only does she discover which sensory attributes are favourites through taste panels using apple varieties currently in development, but she also strives to understand what consumers will actually choose in uncontrolled environments with lots of choices, like grocery stores or open-air markets, to help predict which trial apples will be considered superior by buyers. “Instead of a top down approach of selecting new varieties without considering the preferences of consumers,” Dr. Bejaei explains, “we tried to change the approach and bring in information from the consumer side earlier in the variety development process.”
Dr. Bejaei designed a survey that allowed her to assess preferences of the same consumers in different market settings. She chose the UBC Apple Festival for her research as this special-event market exposed consumers to many uncommon apple varieties, as well as more familiar ones. All the apples were packed in clear plastic bags with a fixed weight and price and often displayed descriptions of the apple characteristics. Dr. Bejaei analyzed the different apples consumers bought in this market and compared this to their regular apple purchases from their grocery store. This allowed her to determine what factors impacted their choices and assess which type of consumers would likely try something new.
Identifying market segments for successful product launch is an important factor in the release of a new apple. After twenty-five years of carefully developing an apple variety, the industry wants to be sure the public is receptive to trying something new. -Dr. Bejaei
The survey showed that consumers select their apples based mainly on taste and aroma, texture, appearance, and previous experience, with different consumers placing different levels of importance on each of these factors. Using advanced statistical methods, Dr. Bejaei was able to use the individual rankings of these preferences to group consumers into five categories of apple buyers. Interestingly, these preferences remain constant for consumers regardless of how many different types of apples are available to them.
“It was interesting to see that people in each category had varied taste preferences,” Dr. Bejaei explains. “Most prefer a sweet taste, while others prefer a more balanced sweet-tart or even a tart apple.” This tells us there are markets for a variety of taste profiles. Understanding what drives each of the different categories of apple buyer will allow apple breeders and the apple industry to be strategic in the new apples they develop, helping to position Canada as a leader in apple breeding and commercialization.
Which category of apple buyer are you?
- Eating Quality Seeker
- Values eating quality above all else
- Choice based on flavour, aroma, crispness
- One-third will consider environmental concerns, possibly preferring organic sources
- More likely to adopt a new, high-quality apple variety quickly - ideal consumer for new varieties
- BC consumer top choices: Pink Lady®, AmbrosiaTM, Gala, Aurora Golden GalaTM
- Familiar Eating Quality Seeker
- Prefers sweet-tart apples more than other buyers
- Choice based on previous experience or appearance, as well as flavour, aroma, crispness
- One-quarter considers health benefits and environmental concerns; one-third prioritizes price
- Generally younger than consumers in other categories
- Prefers familiar varieties, but will try new apples that are attractive and tasty
- Target market for premium bicoloured apples with superior eating quality with sweet-tart taste
- BC consumer top choices: HoneycrispTM, McIntosh, Salish®
- Taste Lover Buyer
- Choice based primarily on flavour and aroma; one-fifth also consider appearance
- Tends to be younger (more thirty and forty year-olds than other categories)
- Enjoys apples known for their unique flavour
- Willing to buy bi-coloured and green apples, as well as red
- Will likely adopt a novel high-quality apple variety quickly - ideal consumer for new varieties
- BC consumer top choices: AmbrosiaTM, Gala, McIntosh, Cox’s Orange Pippin
- Perfect Product Seeker
- Equally values appearance, crispness, flavour, aroma and previous experience
- Prefers well-known superior apple varieties of high quality
- Some will buy yellow-skinned apples
- Considers health and environmental concerns, as well as price, to make purchase
- Majority are younger than 45
- Will purchase new varieties only after they become established
- BC consumer top choices: primarily AmbrosiaTM, also Gala, HoneycrispTM, Aurora Golden GalaTM
- Cultivar-Loyal Buyer
- Choice based primarily on appearance, followed by crispness and previous experience; flavour is not ranked in their selection process
- Prefers established traditional, heritage or local apple varieties
- Most are middle aged or older
- May never try new varieties, preferring to stick to what they know
- BC consumer top choices: Gala, Fuji, AmbrosiaTM, Salish®
Categories of apple buyers in BC retail market:
The pie chart shows the percent of people in each of the five categories of apple buyers: 1. Eating Quality Seeker with 22%; 2. Familiar Eating Quality Seeker with 12.8%; 3. Taste Lover Buyer with 19.2%; 4. Perfect Product Seeker with 19.9%; and 5. Cultivar-Loyal Buyer with 26.2%.
What does this tell us about apple markets across Canada and the world?
“We learned that the apple market is a differentiated market and not a commodity market anymore.” Dr. Bejaei explains. In other words, an apple is not just an apple to consumers -- people care about the difference between varieties and buy apples based on different preferred traits. Different markets will have different apples available to them, but this will not impact the reasons consumers use to select their apples, and apple buyer categories remain constant.
“In addition, conducting the study in a multicultural market like Vancouver provides us with unique options to be able to make initial assumptions about international markets for our apple products.” Dr. Bejaei found customers with West Asian and South Asian backgrounds considered appearance of apples more important, while those with a European background relied on previous experience more often. All of these groups look for juicy, crisp apples.
“Customer preference can be complicated”, Dr. Bejaei explains. “In this study we only considered conscious reasons for apple choice, however, there might be other reasons consumers chose certain apples – reasons they were unaware of – such as apple name.” The research team will continue to study consumer preferences with innovative methods and analyses, working closely with Dr. Singh’s team to support the development of the next generation of apple varieties. As Dr. Bejaei explains, “Identifying market segments for successful product launch is an important factor in the release of a new apple. After twenty-five years of carefully developing an apple variety, the industry wants to be sure the public is receptive to trying something new.”
Want to learning more?
Bejaei, M.; Cliff, M.A.; Singh, A. Multiple Correspondence and Hierarchical Cluster Analyses for the Profiling of Fresh Apple Customers Using Data from Two Marketplaces. Foods 2020, 9, 873. https://doi.org/10.3390/foods9070873
Meet Dr. Masoumeh Bejaei: Masoumeh Bejaei, Ph.D. | Directory of scientists and professionals (science.gc.ca)
Meet Dr. Amritpal Singh: Amritpal S Singh | Directory of scientists and professionals (science.gc.ca)