A.T. Kearney’s third annual survey of U.S. shoppers’ local food-buying habits finds that local food has made the leap from a “hot” consumer trend to a central growth driver for grocery retailers and restaurants.

In fact, two years ago, when A.T. Kearney, Chicago, conducted its first study of local food-buying habits, merely offering local food was a differentiator for retailers. Fast forward to today, and participation in the local food category is table stakes and merchandising excellence is critical for growth.

For this year’s study, A.T. Kearney surveyed more than 1,500 U.S. shoppers who indicate they are the primary shopper or share shopping responsibility in their households.

“The ‘locavore’ movement has taken root,” says Randy Burt, partner and co-author of the study. “Consumers—especially women and young people—have come to expect not only high-quality local meat, seafood and produce, but also jams, ice cream and bread. Forward-thinking retailers and restaurants with a distinctive definition of local and a focus on marketing and merchandising fresh, high-quality products at the right price will capture a long-term advantage in this growing market.”

Findings from the survey include:

“Local food” has been redefined. Almost all consumers have coalesced around a stricter definition of local. Ninety-six percent now describe local food as products grown or produced within 100 miles from the point of sale—up from 58% in 2014.

Access to local food is no longer the primary roadblock to increasing local food sales. Only 27% of consumers say products are not available. However, about half say they are not buying local because of a lack of clear advertising/in-store signage.

Almost all consumers (93%) associate local with “fresh,” which is the primary purchasing factor for grocery consumers.

Regardless of the category, 78% of consumers are willing to pay a premium of 10% or more for local food, up from 70% in 2014.

Demand for local food is expanding beyond produce, meat and seafood. More consumers say local is also an important attribute for prepared foods and dry groceries. For canned and jarred products, local increased in importance from 5% in 2014 to 13% in 2015; for prepared foods, the jump was from 10% to 23%; for bread, the increase was from 9% to 18%.

For a copy of the full report, “Firmly Rooted, the Local Food Market Expands,” go HERE.