When it comes to perusing the grocery store, there's a plethora of different factors that can lead to picking one item over another. One factor that's been getting its fair share of media attention and in-store callouts is "local." Americans are largely split on the importance of choosing locally grown/sourced items, with half (50%) saying it's an important factor in their purchasing decisions and an equal and opposite half (50%) saying it's not.

This puts buying local behind a number of other factors, as strong majorities of Americans say things like sugar content (69%), fat content (66%), sodium content (64%), and calorie count (64%) are important considerations in choosing one item over another. The perceived importance of buying local is more on par with whether items are antibiotic/hormone free (53%) or contain artificial colors/flavors (50%), and is well ahead of whether items are organic (34%).

These are some of the results of The Harris Poll® of 2,225 U.S. adults surveyed online between October 14 and 19, 2015. Full results of this study, including data tables, can be found here.

Buying local: the what and where
When looking at different departments within a grocery store, Americans don't appear to believe they're all created equal when it comes to the importance of purchasing local foods. The produce department ranks highest, with two-thirds (67%) of Americans saying it's important they buy locally grown/sourced food there. Over half also feel it's important to buy local in the dairy (56%), bakery (55%), and meat (52%) departments. Roughly four in ten feel it's important to purchase local in the deli (43%) and seafood (39%) departments, while roughly one in four say it's important to do so in the frozen foods (26%) aisle. "While consumers appear to care more about purchasing locally grown fresh food compared to non-fresh food, this may be a result of the larger assortment of local options available in the fresh departments," says Sherry Frey, Senior Vice President with The Nielsen Perishables Group.

Millennials are more likely than their elders to value a local label in the meat (63% vs. 48% Gen Xers, 47% Baby Boomers & 43% Matures), deli (53% vs. 38%, 38% & 41%), and frozen food (35% vs. 25%, 22% & 10%) departments.

Those with kids in the household are more likely to say buying local is important in every department, compared to those without.

And just where exactly are Americans shopping for these local options? Traditional grocery retailers (46%) and farmers' markets (44%) are the top destinations for local product purchases. Just over a quarter visit farm stands (27%), while fewer than one in five say big box retailers (18%) and club stores (16%). Fewer still opt to make use of food cooperatives (8%), Community Supported Agriculture (sometimes called "CSAs" or "Farm Shares" – 5%) or an online source (4%). 

Local perceptions
Whether or not they buy local themselves, Americans have a few thoughts on how locally sourced foods compare to their non-local counterparts. Majorities believe local food purchases support both the local economy as a whole (69%) and individual local businesses (63%), along with being fresher (68%).

Around four in ten say buying local enables them to understand where the food comes from (39%) and say that it tastes better (37%). "Buying local is yet another way consumers seek to better understand where their food comes from, and presents an opportunity for manufacturers across the store to be even more transparent about all aspects of their products including sourcing, processing, and packaging," says Frey. Just under a third believe local food is higher quality (32%) and healthier (31%), while around one quarter say it's better for the environment (25%) and it's safer (24%). While buying local is known for many things, it's not always known for being cheap. Just one fifth (20%) say buying local costs less compared to non-local options.

But which of these factors actually make a difference at checkout? Among the eight in ten (81%) Americans who ever shop for locally sourced/grown food, supporting the local economy is the top reason for doing so (39%), followed by the food being fresher (34%) and supporting individual local businesses (32%).

What does "local" mean?
"Local" in and of itself calls to mind a geographic region, but there's no particular definition and results suggest that this perception can vary based on the product. When asked how far a product could come from and still be considered local, majorities say it must be within their state or closer for each food type: baked goods (77%), dairy (74%), produce (72%), and meat (68%).

Baked goods have the smallest radius, with nearly one half (47%) saying these products must come from within their county or city/town to be considered "local."

And when local isn't an option...
No matter how strong one's proclivity might be for purchasing locally sourced or grown options, sometimes it's just not possible. Among local purchasers, 62% say they'll purchase a non-local version of a product when they can't find a local option while shopping.

Millennials are more likely than any other generation to put in the extra effort of checking another location (37% vs. 23% Gen Xers, 24% Baby Boomers, & 19% Matures).

The same can be said of those with children in the household compared to those without (37% vs. 22%).

Nearly three in ten (28%) aren't willing to give up so easily, and will instead look for a local version of the product at a different location. One in ten (10%) say they'll throw in the towel and refrain from purchasing the product altogether.