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Traditional U.S. food retailers are in a classic squeeze. As Wal-Mart devours customers at the low end of the price spectrum, specialty food retailers are luring away high-end customers with gourmet fare. Poor supermarkets are in some ways like department stores: caught in the middle, often with rising labor costs and shrinking customer loyalty.

But few industries are as quick to respond to customers' desires as the food retail trade. The industry's trade association, the Food Marketing Institute, frequently funds consumer research and advises its members on new ways to use cash register scanner data to track changing customer preferences.

It may, however, take some awfully creative analysis of scanner data to deal with a raft of new fundamental issues facing these retailers. First, they are volume-driven mass-market enterprises operating in an increasingly segmented consumer environment. Second, an aging population may mean smaller households that put fewer items in their shopping carts.

Food retailers must also deal with another size issue: the average household is smaller but the average person in them is bigger. Obesity has become almost a national obsession as aging Baby Boomers bulk up. The last thing any supermarket needs is to be considered one of the villains in the waistline wars.

Clearly, changing consumer food preferences may prove to be as big, if not a bigger, problem for supermarkets than the threat from Wal-Mart. The advantage food retailers have is that with a few big chains owning most of the over 30,000 supermarkets nationwide, they can conduct consumer research on a scale matched only by the Census Bureau.

Here are some of the questions such research might explore: What household type spends the most or least on food at home and how are they changing? Which segment of the population is the most overweight, and how will that affect their food shopping behavior?

Each store trading area is different, but national data sheds light on those questions. The household type that spends the most money on food is, of course, a married couple with children, which spends 33 percent more on a weekly basis than married couples with no children. But married couples with kids are only 24 percent of all households, and in many places they account for less than 20 percent of households, while couples with no kids are 28 percent of all households.

In more than two-thirds of married-with-children households, both husband and wife work. And, a rising percentage of those families have teenage children who may have a driver's license, a part-time job or after-school sports activities. Members of such families are spending less time at home and less time eating together.

The result? From 1996 to 2001, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, married couples with children reduced the fraction of their food budget spent on food at home from 62 percent to 59 percent. That reduction of over $7 billion a year in at-home food spending directly hit supermarkets' best customers.

Married couples with no children spent only 56 percent of their total food budget on food they ate at home in 2001, compared with 58 percent five years earlier. But because they spend less on all food, that drop of 2 percentage points cost food retailers only about $3 billion. In all types of households, spending on food away from home is increasing faster than on food at home.

The average age of married couples without children is 56 years old and the most rapidly increasing age segment is 55 to 64 years old. So within the trading area of many supermarkets, particularly in the older parts of the country, we may see a noticeable shift in customer base from the higher spending families with kids toward the lower spending families with no kids.

The household type that spends the least on food is, as would be expected, a single person. These consumers spend less than half as much as married couples with no children but their ranks are growing at twice the rate of married couples. Twenty-eight percent of households in the 55 to 64 age group are single-person households, so the trend of high growth among this category is likely to continue.

For food retailers, the most interesting aspect of the growth in the numbers of people ages 55 to 64 is that, for most people, this is the age at which people are at their fattest. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the percentage of overweight Americans (adults whose body mass index is greater than 25) averages about 64.5 percent. But it is highest between the ages of 55 and 64 for women when 73.1 percent of them (and 72.5 percent of men) are said to be overweight. It is highest for men between the ages of 65 and 74, when 77.2 percent are said to be overweight.

As supposedly health conscious Baby Boomers fill the 55 to 64 age cohort over the next six years, and after 2010 the 65 to 74 cohort, it remains to be seen whether and how they will change their food buying behavior. They may shift their spending to more healthful foods, but they may also just buy smaller packages or smaller portions of prepared meals.

One thing we can predict with a fairly high degree of certainty is that an increasing number of both men and women over 55 will be at work in managerial, professional or other white-collar jobs. And more of them will own and visit a second home. This suggests that they are not likely to be home as often as they might have been in the past, thus increasing the demand for prepared, but healthful, foods to take to either residence.

The bottom line is that the household segment that spends the most at supermarkets has the lowest growth rate, while single people who spend the least are rapidly growing and the older, chubbier customers are growing the fastest of all. Perhaps the supermarket of the future will offer a weight-loss program for older single people somewhere near the fresh fruit and produce aisle.

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