Ugly Food, Negative Feelings: Why Consumers Won’t Pay More for Unattractive Produce

Lauren Grewal, Jillian Hmurovic, Cait Lamberton, and Rebecca Walker Reczek, 2018, 18-123-08

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Retailers regularly trash fresh, edible fruits and vegetables, generating millions of pounds of waste and billions of lost revenue dollars annually. In response to growing public awareness of the environmental, social, and financial issues surrounding food waste, some retailers have started selling aesthetically imperfect produce. Campaigns include Intermarché’s “Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables,” Asada’s “Wonky Produce,” Whole Foods’ “Imperfect Produce,” and Giant Eagle’s “Produce with Personality.” In each case, retailers promoted “ugly produce” by discounting prices and encouraging more positive perceptions of appearance atypicality. It is questionable, however, whether these strategies will be effective or sustainable in the long term.

In this report, Lauren Grewal, Jillian Hmurovic, Cait Lamberton, and Rebecca Walker Reczek propose that there are more sustainable and cost-effective ways to market unattractive produce. By examining the underlying psychological process at the point of consumer produce acquisition, they investigate how the aesthetic premium placed on produce contributes to consumers’ rejection of safe, edible, yet aesthetically unattractive produce, and suggest how such devaluation can be reduced.

In four experiments they demonstrate that consumers systematically devalue unattractive produce because of altered self-perceptions: merely imagining the consumption of unattractive produce negatively impacts the way consumers view themselves, eliciting lower product valuations for less attractive produce, driving diminished choice, purchase, and willingness to pay. In demonstrating the self-perception mechanism driving consumers’ depreciation of unattractive produce, these results also reveal strategies for mitigating consumers’ devaluation response.

The authors test two managerially relevant methods for effectively counteracting the adverse impact of unattractive produce on negative self-perceptions: (1) reducing the diagnostic value of the self-signal of consumer choices and (2) preserving self-perceptions by boosting consumers’ self-esteem. An intervention strategy aimed at boosting self-esteem, for example, increased willingness to pay for unattractive produce by 22.4% (effectively equalizing consumers’ valuation of unattractive and attractive produce). Additionally, in an experiment in the field, simple in-store messaging boosting self-esteem increased grocery shoppers’ positive self-perceptions and, subsequently, willingness to choose unattractive produce. Back-of-the-envelope revenue calculations suggest such intervention strategies would generate 6.5% - 19.4% more revenue than employing a discounting strategy.

Retailers can use these low-cost, easily-implementable interventions to market unattractive produce without offering steep discounts, thus mitigating food waste while protecting their bottom lines. More broadly, these findings indicate that any retailer interventions encouraging consumer purchase and choice of unattractive produce incorporate elements to offset the adverse effects of the negative inferences shoppers make about the self when considering unattractive produce.

Lauren Grewal is an Assistant Professor of Business Administration at the Tuck School of Business, Dartmouth College. Jillian Hmurovic is a doctoral candidate at the Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business, University of Pittsburgh. Cait Lamberton is Associate Professor of Business Administration and Fryrear Faculty Fellow, Marketing and Business Economics Department, Katz School of Business, University of Pittsburgh. Rebecca Walker Reczek is the Dr. H. Lee “Buck” Mathews Professor of Marketing at the Fisher College of Business, The Ohio State University.


The authors thank Dhruv Grewal, Jens Nordfält, Carl-Philip Ahlbom, Kelly Haws, Ryan Hamilton and multiple participants at the Marketing Academic Research Colloquium for feedback on this research. This research was funded by a Marketing Science Institute Research Grant, the University of Pittsburgh, a small dean’s grant, and The Ohio State University. The first two authors contributed equally to this paper.


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