How America Eats Today
Fast, Fresh, Flavorful: Marketers Are Adapting to the New Demands of a Rapidly Changing Food World
If we are what we eat, then America is more complex than ever.
We are so obsessed with on-the-go food that even a bowl of cereal is seen as a hassle for some, and the last thing we want to do is turn on an appliance. But as we seek convenience, we also crave complexity, looking for the same bursts of flavors in a bag of chips as we get at a fine restaurant. We want variety. The average number of items sold at a supermarket has ballooned to more 38,000 today from 10,425 in 1977, according to the Food Marketing Institute, which includes some non-food items. Yet at the same time, an increasing number of us are demanding simplicity, prompting brands to trim ingredient lists or promote products as "natural," gluten-free or both.
Add it up, and it gets pretty confusing for marketers, who can count on one thing only: They can no longer appeal to a mass market of consumers who once reliably shopped for the same items at the same places.
In many cases, the forces shaping the food world are driven by consumer groups with rapidly diverging tastes. Consider the well-to-do food elitists practicing what shopper-marketing firm SAI Marketing calls "food one-upsmanship," living a "post-acquisitive" lifestyle in which food experiences -- rather than jewelry or sports cars—are emerging as the primary luxury purchase. Yet the majority of us are "food realists" who simply looking to get by as we seek more deals from familiar brands.
Moreover, the two biggest food-buying generations are asserting their wills, often in conflicting ways. Millennials are disloyal, shopping anywhere, anytime and in constant search of variety and new ethnic foods, often from smaller brands. To them, yesterday's chop suey is today's "sofrito," a trendy mix of Latin herbs, vegetables and spices.
Baby boomers, meanwhile, still have favorite brands, but their behaviors are also changing. They seek smaller package sizes as they age and have fewer mouths to feed.
As a result, "established food brands and traditional grocery stores will be pressured at both ends by sets of consumers with very different value equations," according to investment bank Jefferies Group and AlixPartners, a global-business advisory firm, which recently published a joint report called "Trouble in Aisle 5." The changes "appear poised to rapidly transform the food-at-home industry, long thought of as a bastion of stability."