A University of Florida professor collaborates across academic disciplines to measure consumer preferences to different flowers, fruits and vegetables with the goal of developing plants designed for the consumers’ pleasure.

David Clark, professor of floriculture biotechnology, explained this concept – called consumer-assisted selection – to attendees at the American Seed Trade Association’s 51st Vegetable & Flower Seed Conference in Tampa, Fla.

“Many times corporations start with research and development and usually don’t put the consumer first,” Clark says. “We are putting the consumer first and engaging the complete value chain.”

Consumer-assisted selection is making products that people want before they know they want them, Clark explains. It’s exactly what Apple did with the iPhone, he notes.
Diversity is characteristic of the flower, fruit and vegetable industries.

“Consumers have lots of options available,” he says. “Imagine walking into these sections of a store. There is sight, smell and feeling – all of which go into the biosenses.”

In describing the consumer, he said 70 – 75 percent of flowers are bought by women and that women influence 50 percent of the purchasing decisions for a household.

“More than half of the fruits and vegetables are bought by women,” Clark says. “If you Google search for images of people buying produce, all the images show women.”

The disconnect, he says, is that the majority of plants are developed and grown by men.

“Google search plant breeder and almost all the images depict men,” Clark says. “There is a big problem here.

“Men have one switch – on and off, while women have multiple switches, dials and levers. Men are very simple and women are very complex.”

Most new crops are commercially developed for their yield characteristics and timing of harvest. These characteristics are easy to measure and easy to predict, but these are not the same characteristics that consumers use to make their purchasing decisions, he says.

Clark asks, “How do we as plant breeders (men) find out what consumers (women) really want?”

This is what Campbell’s cross-disciplinary team of researchers is trying to figure out. His team is comprised of specialists in consumer science, plant science, and psychophysics.
Psychophysics quantifies the relationship between physical stimuli and the sensations and perceptions they effect (behavior and emotions).

“It is very hard to measure emotion,” Clark says. “It’s even harder to measure how much more people will pay if stimulated. For example what’s the value of flavor, color, fragrance? We measure how the eyes, ears and nose respond because they all go to the brain – where ideas are created.”

Clark’s team uses students, the next generation of consumers and breeders, knowing that the end product will take a while to accomplish. They are also testing external consumers, which includes market segment analysis, purchasing behavior and mind genome.

We know that physical stimuli in plants are controlled by genetic traits that are measured empirically, Clark says. His team measures human emotion and the value of novelty using facial recognition software to assess subjects’ physiological responses to visual stimuli.

A florist was asked to create three flower arrangements: normal, something a little more novel and one that was really novel – all at a $35 price point.

“We put these arrangements in front of people and guys don’t get it,” Clark says. “They flatline. When you give women boring things, they are not interested either. We found that women like novel, but not something a ‘little novel.’ When presented with a ‘little novel,’ they revert back to traditional.”

Is this an enticing clue, he asks.

“Preliminary work shows that different areas of the brain are stimulated when subjects are presented with an image of flowers versus green plants. The ventral striatum has been associated with pleasant rewards, while the amygdala is involved in detecting salient stimuli from the environment.”

Clark says there will be gender differences. One of the survey questions asked participants their favorite color.

“Men responded with primary colors as their favorite – red, blue and yellow,” he says. “Women responded to blends – purple, pink and orange.”

Regardless of what the research shows, this research means that down the road consumers should have flowers, fruits and vegetables tailored to their likes.