ELUSIVE GOAL FOR SUPERMARKETS: STAYING FOREVER YOUNG

Supermarkets have a challenge that will determine how fast this mature retail channel shows its age. It's a challenge just as important as soaring labor costs and intensifying competitive battles.It's the challenge of attracting younger consumers.Take a look at this week's report on an exclusive survey (Page 14) which, among other points, found that supermarkets need to do a better job of drawing

Supermarkets have a challenge that will determine how fast this mature retail channel shows its age. It's a challenge just as important as soaring labor costs and intensifying competitive battles.

It's the challenge of attracting younger consumers.

Take a look at this week's report on an exclusive survey (Page 14) which, among other points, found that supermarkets need to do a better job of drawing younger shoppers between 18 and 34 years old.

Those customers are increasingly patronizing alternate formats, such as natural food stores and supercenters.

This is a pressing problem because younger consumers (unlike their parents) are clueless as to why they need to visit supermarkets.

"They feel they can pick up everything they need at Trader Joe's, CVS, Whole Foods or other such stores," Mona Doyle, president of the Consumer Network, Philadelphia, told me recently.

Supermarkets have precious little time to waste in targeting these younger shoppers. These customers are in the "adoption phase" of forming their permanent shopping patterns, Harry Balzer, vice president of The NPD Group's food consulting services, said in this week's story. NPD, Port Washington, N.Y., conducted the survey.

Doyle identified young working women as the most critical consumer segment to address. In fact, if supermarkets don't win over these customers before they have families, the game could be lost, she added.

Younger consumers place a premium on convenience. Bill Bishop, president, Willard Bishop Consulting, Barrington, Ill., suggested in this week's story that supermarkets need to become destinations for short shopping trips.

The goal would include fill-in, immediate consumption and specific-item needs. He envisioned supermarkets grouping these destination items into one section toward the front of the store. Sounds like a convenience store within a supermarket.

Attracting younger consumers doesn't need a complicated strategy. Doyle shared a few simple ideas, all revolving around the produce category.

First, she pointed to the example of convenience stores, which are now offering single-serve, prepared salads in disposable bowls that shoppers can grab and take to work. That's faster and easier than having to assemble a meal at the supermarket salad bar.

Second, supermarkets can reposition parts of their salad bars as "stir-fry bars," Doyle suggested. This would be as simple as grouping together vegetables that are logical candidates for stir-frying, linking supermarkets with an increasingly popular (and fast) style of cooking among younger consumers.

Third, take it one step further. Why can't supermarkets offer to do the stir-frying right in the store after shoppers choose the ingredients? A store can dedicate a grill for this purpose. You get the idea. Supermarkets can rededicate themselves to making simple adjustments that would be popular with younger consumers on the go.

Whether this involves produce or some other category, supermarkets may find that strategies catering to younger consumers will perpetuate their own salad days.