In some ways, the Great Recession (is it too soon to start using capitals?) was a boon to the supermarket industry. Americans stopped eating out, and began shopping more for food to eat at home. Stores in general were ill-prepared for the change, with little to talk about except price, and few had an especially compelling story there.
Now that things seem to be looking up, food retailers have an opportunity to change a paradigm. Long-focused on cutting prices, and consequently labor, selection and just about everything else, most food stores find themselves in the unenviable position of basing their overall value prop on price, which is a specious argument at best.
Some of the smarter players are looking for a new idea; they want to get back to basics as merchants and engage shoppers with more than just the promise of a low price. Their timing couldn’t be better.
While the economy is showing signs of life, growth is not so robust as to drive the average person back to restaurant meals. People are still eating at home, but are also more interested in what they are eating than ever. Health is a big topic, with obesity and its related diseases reaching epidemic levels across the nation. Another area of concern, although one that tends to have its peaks and valleys in terms of consumer interest, is food safety.
Food stores have a unique opportunity to change the conversation and take back ownership of selling food from all the wanna-be players out there. 7-Eleven is now offering “healthy” choices, which seems like an oxymoron of the highest order. Wal-Mart carries organics as well, which might be a good thing, or it might be a greenwash.
The fact is that consumers are monstrously confused about whom to believe when it comes to food information. The news media tells one side of the story (whatever is the goriest), and while viewers might recognize the one-sidedness of a report on salmonella poisoning, they don't really know where to go to get the whole story. More importantly, they don't know where to go to get information about how to feed their families while minimizing the myriad risks of poorly-processed or tainted products.
Enter the supermarket. Much as we can ask the pharmacist questions that our doctor isn’t readily available to answer, food stores can serve as an accessible source of expertise by interpreting FDA/USDA and other trusted organizations’ information and recommendations. They can boil down the massive quantities of data from government sources into easy-to-digest (sorry) guidelines that shoppers can trust and use today.
We’ve managed to take a basic resource — food — that is necessary for sustaining our very lives, and turn it into a cheap commodity that does sustain us, but all too often only barely, with unnecessary ingredients and unnatural taste profiles. We’ve also seen fit to reduce mealtimes to an interruption of “more important” activities like soccer or finishing that report, where once mealtime was the more important activity.
Supermarkets are in a position to take back ownership of food and mealtime by providing not just recipes and cheap meal solutions, but also knowledge and wisdom about the food we put into our bodies every day. It’s our responsibility as sellers of food to provide advice and insights. Is it too much to ask that the people selling food have the same level of passion as someone selling us a computer? I hope not.