Fish & Fisheries

Marketing Oysters in the Delaware Bay: Top 5 Insights

January 11, 2017

Chincoteague Virginia Oysters photographed at The Maine Avenue Fish Market in Washington DC. Photo © Jason Houston

Oysters provide important environmental benefits to people by filtering and improving the quality of water in the bay.  But are consumers willing to pay more for oysters to help fund the benefits they provide?

Before we can get to an answer, we must first understand what consumers care about in general when they purchase oysters to eat. Do they care just about the species? The size? The location, color or smell? When we know what drives consumers to buy one oyster over another, we can get a better read on whether they will be willing to pay more for oysters that do double-duty cleaning water in the bay.

Why do we even care? Well, the research has important implications for nature and people, including the livelihoods of oystermen, funding sources for oyster restoration in bays along the east coast, and improved water quality for recreational visitors, commercial fisherman, and wildlife that lives there.

With funding from a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Sea Grant and the Delaware Economic Development Office, Kent Messer, Maik Kecinski and Tongzhe Li, doctors from the Center for Experimental and Applied Economics at the University of Delaware, have spent the past year conducting consumer studies to answer the most pressing oyster questions: Which oyster attributes do consumers care about? Are there demographic factors that play a role in willingness to pay for oysters? Does information on water quality influence willingness to pay?

The studies weren’t just hypothetical, real money was at stake. Participants were given $10 for their time and answers! Consumers’ willingness to pay for various oyster attributes – like brand or location of origin – was assessed by their responses to whether or not to purchase each of the oyster options for a given price. Then, participants were given the option to take home free raw or fried oysters. (Aside: How can I get this gig next time?)

Rappahannock Oyster Co maintains its own oyster farms in the waters around its Merroir restaurant in Topping, Virginia. Photo © Jason Houston
Rappahannock Oyster Co maintains its own oyster farms in the waters around its Merroir restaurant in Topping, Virginia. Photo © Jason Houston

There was a catch though. Just like in a real shopping situation, participants were not allowed to taste the oysters before purchasing. They needed to rely fully on information provided on a few key attributes. And…drum roll please…the results were:

  1. Do brand names matter? In a word, nope! Customers were not willing to spend more money on brand names like Blue Point, Nauti Pilgrim or Little Bitches (yes, you read that correctly). To our surprise, consumers were not swayed by brand name. Interestingly, however, they were willing to pay more for oysters that combined a brand name with the words “wild caught.”
  2. Does harvest location matter? Again–no! The geographic source of the oyster did not influence the average price consumers were willing to pay.
  3. Does having the word “local” in the description make a difference? YES! Consumers are willing to pay more for local oysters. And local means literally the word “local,” not the name of the bay located nearest to where the oysters are being sold.
  4. Which demographic factors make a difference? The study found that females on average are willing to pay less than males; frequent oyster eaters are willing to pay more; and willingness to pay decreases as age increases.
  5. What about information on water quality? The University of Delaware researchers also tested the language that NOAA uses to describe the water quality of the bay. They tested three categories to describe the water from where the oysters were harvested: low nutrients, medium nutrients and high nutrients. “High nutrients” indicates more agricultural runoff, like nitrogen, and thus higher levels of pollution. Consumers were willing to pay more oysters labeled as coming from waters with “high nutrients.” This suggests that the wording could have been misleading, for example, consumers were inferring “high nutrients” to mean higher nutrition, not polluted waters. Marketing language matters!

This is a great example from the University of Delaware’s research team of applying social science research to compelling issues facing nature and people. The results could even drive the future labeling of oysters. Specific language matters and if we believe that consumers may be willing to pay more for wild harvested or sustainably harvested oysters – or pay more if they know that oysters provide clean water – we should look to the social sciences to get wording right from the start, and not waste resources on language that doesn’t make a difference.

Elizabeth Schuster

Elizabeth Schuster has been working as an environmental economist with The Nature Conservancy since 2013. She works with the freshwater, coastal and marine programs to integrate economics and human wellbeing into conservation strategies. In practice, this can mean working with coastal municipalities to help them overcome barriers to implementing nature-based solutions, like living shorelines and salt marsh restoration. Or, it may look like collaborating with county-level partners on nature-based tourism strategies. More from Elizabeth

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