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Published: 28 Mar, 2022

RiseB portrait: Elin Nilsson

PROFILE Associate professor in Consumer Behaviour and Marketing

Text: Maxim Vlasov

Elin’s research revolves around consumer behaviour with focus on retail. She was part of starting the Future Retail Lab - an acceleration program that helps trading businesses with marketing, logistics, business models, sustainability, and other skills. She is a member of the research council for Svenska Stadskärnor that seeks to inspire development of attractive and sustainable city centres.

– My passion is within commerce and retail - how to create unique and personal relations, in both physical and digital space. It is the small unique shops - not large corporations - that interest me the most. My grandfather has run a grocery store his entire life. As a kid I would often sit in the storage room waiting while my parents buy groceries. So this is very personal to me.

– I also find the psychological aspect fascinating - what is it that drives people, what happens in their minds, and how can we use existing knowledge on consumer behaviour and marketing to help people make better decisions.

I find the psychological aspect fascinating – what is it that drives people, what happens in their minds, and how can we use existing knowledge on consumer behaviour and marketing to help people make better decisions.

In an ongoing project, Elin explores the future of milk in collaboration with Sophie Kriszan, Associate Professor at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, and Anna-Karin Karlsson from Norrmejerier - a dairy co-operative in Norrland. The project takes a unique interdisciplinary approach. Based on technical estimations of what cows eat, what happens on the farm, and what consequences this has for environment, milk outputs, and price, they develop scenarios for future dairy production. This could be the extension of conventional agriculture, development of existing organic standards, local production where cows only eat grass, or a completely climate-neutral farm. Elin’s role is then to test how consumers see these scenarios, what attributes they find most important and what they are ready to pay for the milk products.

– I have no expectations what scenario people will choose. Of course, I hope it won’t be the conventional production, but it is hard to predict what really triggers them. While positive attitudes towards environmental sustainability have increased among consumers, we can also see that sales of organic milk are going down.

– There are many reasons for this. It is not always easy for consumers to understand what is better - local or organic. There are also so many labels now when it comes to food that it is easy to become lost in this jungle. We also shouldn’t forget about the power of habits. I don’t think people lie when they believe they make the right choice. But with time pressure and information noise, they might just go the easy way and take from the shelf what they usually take.

There is a blame game going on where different actors put responsibility on others in the chain.

What really opened Elin’s eyes on the scale of food sustainability challenges was her contact with the issue of antibiotic resistance. In her study on how people engage with antibiotic resistance on social media, it came out that the discourse is limited to a narrow niche dominated by doctors, scientists, and vegans, while an “average Joe” and supermarkets are almost entirely absent. So there is a project on the way with a goal to create marketing campaigns with two stores, from different grocery chains in Sweden, to provide consumers with guidance in choosing right products in terms of antibiotic use - and then measure how this affects the demand on these products.

– There is a need for a strong bottom-up movement around this issue. Antibiotic resistance is not just about medicine, but also the food we eat, but there is a lack of information and education. There is also a blame game going on where different actors put responsibility on others in the chain. Consumers might expect that if products are sold in a supermarket, then they can’t be bad for their health. At the same time, retailers say that they follow consumer demand or expect responsibility from their suppliers.

If I - who works with these things - think this is hard, imagine how challenging this must be for an average consumer.

Knowledge about this complexity in the food system has its challenges - not only in terms of research, but also when Elin herself goes to the store.

– You stand there with a Swedish product in one hand, and organic in the other, pondering which one is better. It is hard to make 100% right choices all the time, and I try to be forgiving to myself when I make shortcuts sometimes. This can easily create inner conflicts. If I - who works with these things - think this is hard, imagine how challenging this must be for an average consumer. Businesses and governmental agencies should take much more responsibility to set up the rules, provide guidance, and step up in making this transition.