Shoppers well connected to their recipes

Shoppers well connected to their recipes

Exclusive survey details how modern consumers search for recipes and shop for ingredients “It’s so cool that home cooks can connect with information and at so many different places and so many different times." —ESMEE WILLIAMS,

For young grocery shoppers, one of the most important ingredients in the meal-planning process is not even edible.

A survey of 1,500 American shoppers across all age groups, conducted for SN by, shows that Millennials are using their smartphones for recipe searches far more than older generations — even going so far as to rely on their mobile devices to look up last-minute dinner ideas while shopping in the supermarket.

“That is just the way Millennials are wired,” said Esmee Williams, VP of brand marketing for, about the younger generation’s propensity for in-store mobile recipe searches. “They don’t really plan ahead because they know they don’t need to. They are so adept at using online resources, they know they can find anything they want anytime they need it.”

Of the more than 1 billion site visits to each year, more than half now take place via a mobile device — up from 8% just three years ago, Williams said.

“That’s a remarkable shift in behaviors,” she said. “But what’s really cool about that is that so many of those visits are additive. They used to just go to the site, find the recipe and go on their way — now they can see the recipe while they cook, or while they are in the store.”

The survey found that among the Millennial age group (age 18-34), 73% of respondents said they had searched for recipes on a smartphone. That compares with 40% of Gen X respondents (age 35-54) and 19% of Baby Boomers (age 55 and up).

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That hierarchy among the age groups is reversed when it comes to desktop-based recipe searches, with 61% of Boomers having searched for recipes on a desktop computer, vs. 47% of Gen Xers and 34% of Millennials.

Laptop and tablet use showed less disparity by age group, although younger consumers were more likely to use both devices than older consumers were. One-third of Millennials (33%) had searched for a recipe on a tablet, and just over two-thirds (69%) had searched on a laptop.

Williams noted that she expected the adoption of recipe search on tablets to grow as more consumers purchase the devices and have access to Wi-Fi or data plans on the go.

“I think it’s interesting that recipe seeking is happening across so many different devices,” she said. “It’s so cool that home cooks can connect with information and at so many different places and so many different times.

“[As a retailer], that really allows you to be a part of their cooking process at every step along the way, which is a great opportunity to provide value at every step along the way. For brands, I think they need to think about not just providing ideas, but providing solutions.”

In-store search

The propensity to look up recipes while in the store correlated closely with Millennials’ overall use of smartphones to search for recipes, according to the research.

When asked if they would look up recipes on a smartphone or tablet while in the supermarket if they realized they didn’t have a recipe for dinner that night, 69% of Millennials said they would do so, compared with only 44% of Gen Xers who said they would look up a recipe while in the store and 27% of Baby Boomers.

“That’s really an opportunity to reach those customers at their time of need,” said Williams.

She cautioned, however, that in order to reach customers, retailers and suppliers need to make sure they are targeting them where they are already going online.

“There may be a tendency for retailers to try to get home cooks to go to their [retailer] website, but that may not offer as comprehensive a solution as home cooks are seeking,” Williams said.

Just as Millennials are more likely than other age groups to search for recipes while they are in the grocery store, they are also somewhat more likely to search after they get home.

While only 3% of Baby Boomers said they typically search for recipes after they visit the grocery store, 13% of Millennials said that is when they typically search for recipes. Gen Xers were in the middle, with 6% saying they typically search for recipes after they have done their grocery shopping.

Both Boomers and Gen Xers were slightly more likely than Millennials to say they typically search for recipes before going to the store, at 57% and 55%, respectively, for the two older groups, and 49% for the younger Millennials. The remainder of consumers — 38% to 40% across the age groups — said they typically seek recipes both before and after going to the store.

Cataclysmic change

Mona Doyle, president at research firm The Consumer Network, Philadelphia, said today’s fragmented, digitally connected society is having a “cataclysmic” impact on meal planning.

“People have such freedom now, to incorporate any recipe from anywhere, and to modify anything,” she told SN.

The era of mobile connectivity has come amid changes in the way consumers define “dinner,” she explained.

“I think one of the big things is that the definition of ‘dinner’ has changed so much, and the rules about what constitutes dinner have changed,” Doyle said. “Certainly the idea that you had to have meat, vegetable and starches is already ancient history. Now there are so many people who just ‘grab a little something’ [for dinner], and then have some healthy snacks.

“Eating is being spread out, and it’s kind of following your gut — whatever you feel like.”

Similarly, the increasing popularity of “small plates” like shared appetizers and tapas dishes in restaurants is also making its way into the meal-planning process for home cooks, Doyle noted.

She said a key way consumers seem to be using online recipe sources — and they are making heavy use of such websites, even though they may favor recipes from family and friends, she pointed out — is to look for alternate ways to prepare dishes. If a shopper is missing one ingredient that’s called for in a particular recipe, for example, they might search online for another recipe that does not call for that ingredient.

Less angst

Online connectivity has also taken “a lot of the angst” out of preparing dinner, Doyle noted, “because it has become so easy, and there are so many sources — sources for dinner, and for information.”

The fact that meal planning has become more of a “shared” process is also important, she said.

“You can talk to your kids 20 minutes before you go shopping, or while you are shopping. It’s not your burden to stop on the way home and get something for dinner — you can shop as a group, or as a family, and this is amazingly different from when I was growing up.

“So, I think the burden of ‘dinner’ has become much less of a burden.”

Many retailers, she noted, have developed highly engaging websites around meal planning and recipes, including Wegmans Food Centers, Whole Foods Market and Publix Super Markets.

“Some retailer sites are very popular with their users,” Doyle said. “Those are trusted as good sources of information, and they make meal planning easier, too.”

Esmee of also noted that some retailers, such as Safeway with its Just For U digital marketing platform, are succeeding in providing comprehensive, cross-platform solutions for consumers.

“It’s fluid across the PC, tablet and mobile, and it’s easy for home cooks to download coupons and offers,” Williams said of the Just For U program at the Pleasanton, Calif.-based retailer.

Teaching the elders

Just as a young child might teach a parent or grandparent how to use a digital device, younger consumers are also exerting influence on their counterparts from older generations when it comes to dining habits and culinary preferences, Doyle said.

“Certainly the Millennials are different — but now there’s a lot of information that’s moving upwardly,” she said. “It used to be that you learned how to cook from your parents, and you saw them entertain, and you followed them. Now the innovation seems to be coming from the younger generation. They are not only more sophisticated digitally, but they are more sophisticated eaters, and they eat more ethnic foods.”

Ethnic foods in particular are not only expanding the variety of product people eat, but in many cases are also solving another problem for consumers when planning meals — the cost. Foods such as pho, the Vietnamese noodle soup, are very inexpensive and make an interesting, flavorful meal, Doyle pointed out.

Health aspect

While the recession and sluggish economic recovery have had some impact on meal planning, Doyle said other societal changes may be having a bigger impact.

“I think there is much more attention being paid to the health aspect [of meal planning] than to the cost,” she said.

“People don’t necessarily worry about making sure they have a three-course meal, but they do have to worry about who’s a vegetarian and who’s eating gluten free, and who’s getting to the age when they can’t digest the spices any more. There are a lot of other challenges that people have to look at.”


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Many consumers were already cutting back on meat consumption — which historically had been one way to reduce the amount spent on the grocery bill — for other reasons, Doyle pointed out.

“Twenty years ago, if you wanted to cut back, you went with cheaper cuts of meat, and tried to have a few more meatless meals,” she said. “So now you have to look for other ways to cut back — you go to cheaper brands or cheaper stores, or find another way of eating.”

One challenge consumers are facing, she said, is in trying to eat healthier diets with more fresh fruits and vegetables, and finding that doing so can be expensive.

On-hand ingredients

The survey found that among the factors influencing recipe search, home cooks consider the use of on-hand ingredients as the most critical, with 77% citing this as either “important” or “very important.”

Using on-hand ingredients was closely followed by cooking time, with 68% of respondents placing a high priority on that element of meal planning.

Just over half of respondents (52%) said finding a recipe using ingredients that are on sale was important or very important; 49% cited the high value of meeting nutritional requirements; and 39% said meeting special dietary preferences was important.

Williams noted that the concern for using on-hand ingredients reflects consumers’ worries about food costs and the desire not to let anything go to waste.

“People really want to have that confidence that whatever they purchase is going to be used,” she said. “It’s important to lead home cooks down that path of using all of the product.”

Retailers and vendors can do this, she said, by connecting product offers with multiple recipes so that shoppers can buy with the confidence that they will be able to use all of a product.

“The opportunity is to intersect product offers with recipes — here’s what’s on sale, and here’s what you can make with it, and not just what you can make with it this time, but what you can make with it the next three times,” Williams said.

Millennials had by far the biggest preference for seeking recipes using ingredients already on-hand, with 63% saying they shop for recipes based on ingredients they already have.

Gen Xers and Baby Boomers, by contrast, were more likely to search for a recipe before shopping for the ingredients (59% of both age groups).

The tendency for Millennials to search based on ingredients on-hand could be driven in part by the presence of young children in the home, which might make it more difficult to conduct frequent shopping trips for needed items, Williams noted.

The concern over costs is also reflected in survey respondents’ aversion to recipes with expensive ingredients, and for recipes requiring long lists of ingredients.

Those two factors were by far the most cited “turn-offs” when choosing a recipe, according to the survey, far outpacing negative reviews.

Retailers can address the aversion to ingredient-heavy cooking lists by offering products like simmer sauces to make meal preparation easier, and merchandising them in the produce or meat departments to spur meal creation ideas.

“Millennials are cooking from recipes a lot, but they do appreciate ingredients that accelerate prep time,” Williams explained.

Food sensitivities

One of the driving factors for Millennials in meal planning is their increased sensitivity to certain types of ingredients and how they affect their bodies, and the bodies of their children, Williams noted.

Rather than dieting for the sake of weight loss, younger consumers are watching their intake of certain foods that they perceive could have an adverse impact on their health.

“It follows that gluten-free theme — they are not necessarily allergic, but there is a feeling of their bodies being averse to certain types of foods, whether it’s peanuts, seafood or dairy, there is a lot more self-awareness in terms of how food affects their body and how food aligns with that,” Williams said.

Similarly, Williams said Allrecipes has found that consumers increasingly look to vary recipes according to the dietary restrictions of family members.

“People like that flexibility — they want to be able to create that personal touch — they want to be able to get the chicken and the simmering sauce at the store, because that speeds things up and makes it easy, but if they can add that special touch that their family really enjoys, that just adds to the satisfaction.”

Complex searches

The increasing concern about food and its impact on health might also be driving an increased complexity in recipe search behavior.

Two-thirds of cooks use between two and four keywords in their recipe search phrases, but the use of four or more words has grown 18% in the last two years, according to data.

“It’s a matter of understanding how fluid the behavior of using digital devices to solve everyday food needs has become, and also how sophisticated home cooks are,” Williams said.

She noted that when she first began working at 15 years ago, most recipe searches were just one or two words — “chicken recipes” or “muffin recipes,” for example, but now searchers know they can get good results from more complex searches such as “Paleo diet chicken recipe no dairy,” for example.

“Part of it is that search engines like Google do such a good job of marrying you to relevant content, and also because these is so much more relevant content out there,” Williams explained.

She said retailers can capitalize on this trend by making their recipes as descriptive as possible.

“In the past there was this tendency to create recipes that pleased as many people as possible, but now there’s a need to create recipes for niche interests,” she explained. “There’s a real opportunity to connect with home cooks that have very specific interests or needs.”

Keys for retailers

Williams noted that with the increasing use of mobile devices, the most basic service that retailers need to provide is high-functioning Wi-Fi connectivity.

In addition, retailers need to make sure people have information about whatever savings or incentives are being offering that week, and they need to make that information available not only in their weekly flyers, but also in a form that is accessible through mobile devices.

“I think it’s really important to make sure people don’t have to go out of their way to find that information,” Williams said. recently launched a service called “local offers,” for example, that allows recipe searchers to see promotions on products that are available in the store where the customer is shopping.

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“That is really anticipating customer needs and providing that information to them when and where they need and want it most.”

She noted that email is also still a “great way to connect with home cooks.”

Sidebars: Prepared foods face challenge

While supermarket prepared food offerings have improved in the eyes of consumers, they still face some challenges, said Mona Doyle, president at research firm The Consumer Network, Philadelphia.

“One of the things I keep hearing is that prepared foods in supermarkets can be pretty expensive,” she told SN. “And while it’s better than it used to be, it’s still not that great.”

In particular, she said she has heard of shoppers seeking to cut back on buying prepared foods from Whole Foods as a cost-saving measure, and choosing instead to find lower-cost options at local ethnic eateries in their neighborhoods.

“You are talking about reducing the cost per meal, perhaps significantly,” she said.


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One way shoppers are increasingly using prepared food offerings at supermarkets, however, is to combine them with other dishes to create a meal, she explained.

“They might buy something from the prepared foods or the deli area of the supermarket and then combine it with something else. More and more people are willing to do that, and are more comfortable doing that.”

A recent report from found that as supermarkets expand their prepared food offerings to compete with restaurants and appeal to time-pressed consumers, nearly 26% of grocery shoppers said they eat food from the grocery “hot and ready-to-eat” counter more than they did a year ago.

In fact, 33% of home cooks are eating prepared grocery store food monthly or more and nearly 10% are buying prepared foods from the supermarket on a weekly basis.

In many cases, supermarkets are offering ethnic foods in the prepared food area, which is something that holds strong appeal for Millennials, said Esmee Williams, VP at

“Millennials are really open to more ethnic foods,” she told SN. “We are seeing a huge uptick in Asian foods, Indian foods, more sophisticated Mexican foods, and South American foods.”


The search begins

Most home cooks begin their search for recipes on a search engine like Google, according to consumer survey compiled for SN by


Supermarkets play a critical role in consumers’ meal-planning processes, and those processes are evolving rapidly.

The survey described on these pages takes one key aspect of that evolution — the increasing use of digital devices to seek out cooking information — and dissects it to provide insights on how those devices are being used among different age groups.

Some of the key takeaways for retailers include:

Millennial-age shoppers are much more likely to use a mobile device in the meal-planning process, both in the store while shopping, and before and after the shop. Retailers need to connect their offers with recipe ideas in a form that is accessible to these young shoppers.

Shoppers — especially Millennials — prefer to use ingredients they have on-hand already when searching for a recipe. This might appear to be bad news for retailers, but perhaps they can do more in terms of suggesting multiple ways that consumers can use their products so that shoppers buy them in the first place with the confidence that they will not go to waste.

Large ingredient lists are a turn-off. This is where some partially prepared product can come into play, such as simmer sauces or pre-marinated meats. Retailers can suggest simple ways to turn these into full meals so that home cooks can derive some simple satisfaction.

Consumers conduct increasingly detailed searches for recipes. Retailers who want their recipe ideas to be noticed should make sure they point out all the details that consumers might be searching for — gluten-free, vegan, dairy-free, etc. — because consumers know they can find recipe solutions quickly using those descriptive terms.

Fragmentation is changing the face of dinner. Retailers need to think about solutions that provide dinner for families that are not sitting down for a regular three-course meal every night, but are perhaps eating multiple small meals. Solutions that accommodate several different preferences at once, or can be easily customized to meet the needs of multiple tastes, would help retailers serve the needs of such consumers.


Slightly more than half — 55% — of visits to online recipe sites start with search, the report found, and most recipe searches result in a visit to a recipe website.

Asked how they begin their search for a recipe online when preparing a meal, between 59% (for tablet users) and 67% (for laptop users) of respondents said they start by entering words in a search engine.

Between 26% (smartphone users) and 33% (desktop users) begin at a recipe site. The remainder either use a recipe app — 8% to 10% of respondents with a tablet or smartphone, respectively — or go to a manufacturer’s website (2% for smartphone users; 5% for desktop computer users).

The report also showed that 50% of the top-used search terms within the food and beverage/lifestyle category are for specific recipe sites or brands.

During the week of St. Patrick’s Day, corned beef and cabbage dominated such searches, with the terms “corned beef and cabbage,” “corned beef and cabbage slow cooker” and “corned beef and cabbage recipe” among the top 10 recipe-related searches.

Other popular terms were “food network” and variations such as “” and “all recipes,” and variations of that term, along with an ever-popular search term “chicken recipes.”


Printouts still popular

Since the launch of digital recipes, printouts have been the dominant method for viewing the cooking instructions during the actual cooking process, according to

While Baby Boomers still prefer this method, Millennials instead have opted to view recipes on their mobile devices while cooking.

Among Boomers using recipes from the web, 58% said they prefer a printout, according to an consumer survey conducted for SN. That compares with 37% of Gen Xers and 24% of Millennials.

About a third (32%) of Millennials said they prefer to use a smartphone for viewing recipes, compared with 16% of Gen Xers and 6% of Baby Boomers.

Millennials and Gen Xers were about equally likely to cook while viewing a recipe on a tablet — about 14% and 13%, respectively, while 8% of Boomers said they prefer using a tablet.

(Note that 90%-plus respondents said they owned a smartphone and just 52% said they owned a tablet.)

Esmee Williams, VP at, said one reason older cooks might favor printed recipes is the fact that printouts are easier to read.

“We still continue to see growth in printouts, which is surprising,” she told SN. “We would have thought with mobile devices that printouts would start to go away, but a lot of the older consumers still like to use that printout.”

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