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Why "ugly" label helps sell misshapen fruit and veggies

Misshapen and oddly colored fruit and vegetables are known to turn many consumers off, leading to enormous food waste as well as lost profits for farmers and retailers. But physically flawed produce isn't less tasty or nutritious, and when retailers acknowledge its aesthetic shortcomings by labelling it "ugly," consumers often overcome their negative first impressions, new research shows. 

"Using the word 'ugly' to describe unattractive apples or carrots increases the purchase of this kind of produce because it corrects for consumers' negative expectations of taste and quality," Sid Mookerjee, a co-author of the report — "From Waste to Taste: How 'Ugly' Labels Can Increase Purchase of Unattractive Produce" — recently published in the Journal of Marketing, told CBS MoneyWatch. 

The "ugly" label is effective because it points specifically to produce's physical attributes. Less descriptive labels like "imperfect" were less successful at swaying consumers because they don't make clear that the imperfections are only superficial. 

"Ugly" labelling was most effective when accompanying a moderate, not steep, price cut. A sharper price reduction suggests the produce has flaws beyond its appearance, Mookerjee and his colleagues found. Discounts beyond 30% nullify the positive effect of "ugly" labelling.

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In one farmer's market experiment, the "ugly" label, along with a 20% discount, made the produce significantly more salable. 

"The explanation is this label corrects for these negative inferences about taste and health," Mookerjee explained. 

Grocers and other retailers throw out $15.4 billion worth of edible produce each year and lose money on produce that is heavily discounted. 

Reshaping food marketing

Mookerjee hopes the research will help retailers reconsider their marketing and help reduce food waste.  

"Retailers don't need to excessively discount produce if they use the 'ugly' label," he said. "If the label emphasizes produce's aesthetic flaws very clearly, it's likely to be every effective."

Terms like misshapen, that also refer to the physical form, can positively influence consumer behavior, too. By contrast, the "ugly" label does not describe moldy, rotten or damaged produce that is dangerous for consumers to eat.

A number of grocers have picked up on the opportunity to make money by selling imperfect foods. Misfits Market, a subscription service, delivers a box of organic produce that doesn't meet traditional grocery standards to subscriber's doors on a regular basis. 

Imperfect Foods, another subscription service, also sells "ugly" foods such as off-sized eggs and scarred almonds at a discount which it claims helps reduce food waste.

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