A South African study of consumers' perceptions of food labels and its relevance to their purchasing behaviour
BACKGROUND AND MOTIVATION: This study had been motivated by the lack of existing data on South African consumers' perceptions of food labels and its relevance to purchasing behaviour. In order to gather this information it is important to understand consumers and their purchasing behaviour so that these could be translated into food label characteristics to implement consumer-oriented label development (Sijtsema et al., 2002:565). Consumers' purchasing behaviour is influenced by the way they perceive food labels as the image consumers have of a product is derived from their perception thereof. These perceptions may subsequently influence the purchasing behaviour of consumers (Foxall et al., 1998:53). METHODOLOGY: A phenomenological approach was used to ensure that the researcher penetrated as deeply as possible into the research participant's internal, personal world (Hayes, 2000:188). To follow through with this approach, a qualitative research strategy was used in the present study as it is considered a scientific, reliable method to investigate consumers' opinions and perceptions (Ratcliff, 2003). Nine focus group sessions, with a total of 55 label reading participants, were conducted in Potchefstroom, North-West Province. According to Struwig and Stead (2001:98) the focus group is the best method to gather information on consumer perceptions by means of in depth discussions. The data were documented by taking notes and transcriptions of tape recordings of the focus group sessions. Content analysis was performed by categorizing and summarizing data in themes and concepts to facilitate the description and interpretation of the findings. RESULTS AND DISCUSSION: To comprehend results of this study, a food perception model was adapted and applied on food labels. It was found that specific items on the ingredient list and nutrition information as well as personal factors contributed to the general perception of food products as well as perceptions of food labels. This adapted model thus illustrates consumers' perceptions of food labels and its influence on purchasing behaviour. Consumers' purchasing behaviour of food products was found to be influenced to different extents by their perceptions of food labels. CONCLUSION: From this study it is evident that there are various reasons why consumers read food labels. Although consumers do not read nor necessarily use all the information on the label, some of them consider it of importance for members of their families. A few consumers were sceptical about some health related claims on food products because they doubt its scientific truth and validity. Therefore, it would be advised to educate consumers regarding label reading and interpretation food labels in general.
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