Meet Melissa, Your Recessionary Consumer

Campbell Soup Roots Around in Home Pantries for Ideas to Help Homemakers Ride Out the Downturn

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CHICAGO ( -- Melissa Goida is ground zero for the new austerity. The Marlton, N.J., stay-at-home mother of three used to make big shopping trips, often stocking up on groceries for three weeks at a time. Now she hits the stores weekly, sometimes more frequently if there's a good sale, and tries to cap shopping trips at $100 to make a week's worth of meals.

Up close and personal

"It feels like you're walking under a black cloud," Ms. Goida said. "The unknown could be right around the corner."

For marketers such as Campbell Soup, the current recession is necessitating a deeper understanding of Ms. Goida and consumers like her as they wrestle with a decline in food spending of nearly 4% in the fourth quarter of 2008, according to the Commerce Department -- the steepest, fastest drop in more than 60 years. "The suddenness of this and the severity of this [downturn] has made them change in ways I don't think we've seen since the Great Depression," said Charles Vila, VP-consumer and customer insights at Campbell.

Ms. Goida is one of a few thousand consumers with whom the company will conduct in-depth market research this year and among the 50,000 consumers it consults with more generally each year. While Campbell hasn't stepped up that research because of the recession, it is monitoring it more closely than ever. "What we like to do is spend a lot of time with people in environments they feel comfortable with -- dinner parties, shop-alongs, in-home," said Mr. Vila, who has been with Campbell for 20 years. "And they start to talk about their lives."

As a result of these meetings, the company has developed recipes to help busy moms get dinner for four on the table within 30 minutes for $10 or less, which is now the benchmark for an affordable dinner at home. Campbell is looking to discover where families are deriving savings and what they might still spend on to pamper themselves.

Changing patterns
In the case of the 30-something Ms. Goida, her shopping patterns have shifted dramatically over the last 18 months. Her husband is a pharmaceutical sales representative, and the pair used to count on a bonus every three months. But Mr. Goida is transitioning into a new position, filling in for more-senior staff on maternity or other medical leave. If they return before 90 days have elapsed, he does not receive the bonus the family once counted on. For each of these Campbell home visits, Ms. Goida earns $150.

Ms. Goida has transitioned to buying private-label paper and household cleaning products at BJ's, saving her name-brand purchases for food products that her kids -- ages 11, 7 and 3 -- care the most about. Campbell Soup and Kraft Macaroni & Cheese are top-of-mind brands. "You'd think all tomato soups would taste the same," she said. "But they don't."

In general, she said, it's not worth buying private-label cereals either. "I don't want to take the chance of buying a big thing of generic cereal if they're not going to eat it," Ms. Goida said of her kids. "I'd rather mealtime be happy, peaceful and quiet."

Ms. Goida's fridge does contain a variety of private-label perishables, such as cheese, milk and yogurt. She buys meat in bulk and stores one-pound servings in a freezer in her garage. She has also cut out bottled water, thanks to a fridge filter, and juice boxes. She now makes her own lemonade. Yet she recently purchased store-brand pudding snacks she'd normally make herself, because they were on sale.

Mr. Vila said Ms. Goida's purchasing patterns indicate that she trades down in areas where she doesn't detect brand differentiation -- an important insight, naturally, for brand marketers.

Recreating restaurant fare
Like many, the Goida family is eating out less. Mr. Vila said one of the biggest problems facing home cooks today is the necessity of creating restaurant-style meals at home. Of course, they don't come right out and say that. "They'll say, 'We used to go out and we used to have some fun meals that I didn't know how to make at home, and now that we're home, we kind of miss some of those meals, but we like being home,'" he said. "So the interpretation is they want to be able to recreate that experience at home."

That shift has led Campbell to focus this fall on marketing ingredients for make-at-home meals that consumers used to go out to Applebee's or T.G.I. Friday's for, such as Alfredo pasta and juicy burgers. The company's tactics will include a slick, seven-day meal plan with a handful of steps.

But all that home cooking does not mean the meals are well-prepared. Jane Freiman, group manager-kitchens at Campbell, has been struggling with the single biggest problem with home cooks today: the near certainty that something will wind up overcooked. In fact, Ms. Freiman said, many people double cooking times on meat just make sure no one gets sick. The result is a very dry dinner.

How her habits have changed
  • Smart Balance butter
  • Ladies shampoo
  • Chick-fil-A
  • G2 sports drinks
  • Hillshire Farms sausage
  • Local pool membership
  • Team athletics
  • Cheese
  • Kids shampoo
  • Casual, steakhouse dinners
  • Bottled water
  • Bulk ground turkey and beef
  • Disney vacations
  • Back-to-school clothes
  • Cheese And so Campbell is introducing the "French Onion Burger." The burger is browned on both sides, removed from the pan, and then steamed in Campbell's French Onion Soup, which will rehydrate the meat if it's overcooked. The leftover soup is used as a dipping sauce.

    Ms. Goida said she's trimmed spending in a variety of ways beyond the kitchen. The family hasn't done any work on their home for two years. This spring, they made their first trip to Disney World since their youngest child was born, and were able to use points for some of the hotel and souvenir expenses. Mr. Goida travels anywhere from three to five days every week, but that made a second trip possible, to Virginia Beach, again using points to pay for accommodations with an eat-in kitchen. "And so we only ate out once," Ms. Goida said.

    The family is also getting started with back-to-school shopping, but Ms. Goida said that she's told her 11-year-old daughter that clothes shopping will have to wait six weeks. And even for school supplies, she has said, "We'll go out and get it when you need it."

    While Ms. Goida said some of these cuts are temporary -- she expects to eat out a little more eventually, and be able to take more vacations -- many of them are probably for the best. Mr. Vila said her view is pretty representative of the population as a whole.

    "What's happened in the last 18 months is going to leave us permanently scarred," he said. "Perhaps it's a good scar, but behaviors have changed; there is ruthless value assessment." If products and services can't clearly demonstrate and articulate their proposition to the consumer, he said, "they're going to struggle."

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