Panel: Shoppers Still Look for Convenience

Wages are stagnating, food costs are rising, fuel prices remain stubbornly high, and Wall Street is in a state of turmoil. In this daunting economic climate, most consumers are looking for ways to tighten their household budgets. Yet for moms and dads, and even singles, the need to put a healthy meal on the table at the end of a long workday never goes away. Convenience remains at a premium.

NEW YORK — Wages are stagnating, food costs are rising, fuel prices remain stubbornly high, and Wall Street is in a state of turmoil. In this daunting economic climate, most consumers are looking for ways to tighten their household budgets. Yet for moms and dads, and even singles, the need to put a healthy meal on the table at the end of a long workday never goes away. Convenience remains at a premium.

These were themes that emerged during two panel discussions at “Setting the Table,” a consumer trends symposium sponsored and hosted by the Reader's Digest Association last month in New York.

First, in a panel moderated by author, journalist and “Supermarket Guru” Phil Lempert, a group of five women from the New York metropolitan region discussed how their shopping habits had changed in the past few months. Two panelists said they had been stocking up on staple items at Costco more often; another said she had been stocking up on items that were on sale at her regular supermarket. One other panelist said she had been buying meat in bulk and then freezing portions of it for later, and another said she had been cooking with less expensive ingredients — switching from steak to ground beef, for example.

The conversation quickly shifted to solutions that the panelists had found for cooking meals quickly and conveniently at home.

“We've become masters of the stir fry,” said Tanya Osborne of the Bronx. She noted that she had several cookbooks that had recipes specific to time, and singled out praise for Trader Joe's frozen rice, which helped cut down on prep time with several recipes.

Danielle Yuen of Brooklyn noted that her household uses an outdoor grill frequently — both as a convenient way to prepare quick meals during the week, and as a way to entertain friends on weekends.

Like several of the panelists, Cathie Arquilla of Pelham, N.Y., said she enjoys cooking and often references more complex recipes in cookbooks when entertaining guests. But she noted that tacos are a simple everyday food that are easy to prepare, in variations ranging from fish to turkey to beef.

The consumer panel was followed by an industry executive panel, also moderated by Lempert, featuring Tony Stallone, vice president of merchandising for Web grocer Peapod; Frank Beurskens, chief executive officer of kiosk supplier ShoptoCook; and David Orgel, editor-in-chief of Supermarket News. Reflecting on some of the insights offered by the consumer discussion, all agreed that today's leading supermarkets don't just offer their customers a place to find ingredients, they offer a place to find ideas and solutions.

When Lempert asked panelists to give the supermarket industry a grade for how it is currently answering shoppers' needs, Orgel said that he would give an ‘F’ or a ‘D’ to retailers that are still operating with a focus on ingredients and slotting allowances. But others, he noted, are becoming more responsive to shoppers by focusing on specific consumer niches.

“There are others that recognize they can't be all things to all people,” Orgel said. “Safeway, with its new Lifestyle format, or [the Delhaize Group's] Bloom, for example. Some of the best of them, like Wegmans, could even get an ‘A.’”

Beurskens agreed, noting that retailers should think in terms of solutions, not products. According to ShoptoCook's research, shoppers are always eager for new ideas.

“In focus groups, it was driven home to us frequently: ‘I am so sick and tired of cooking chicken breasts the same old way,’” he said. “We track every touch on our interactive system, so we have an enormous amount of data, and trying to prepare meals for children is apparently the No. 1 problem that we are solving in-store. The majority of recipe content in that section is using fruits and vegetables in smoothies and treats. … The No. 3 category is seafood. People are wanting to stretch and search to get out of boneless, skinless chicken breasts.”

On one interesting note, Stallone said that while Peapod was continuing to benefit from consumer demand for convenience, its shoppers weren't necessarily using the website for meal planning ideas or recipes. The company researched the issue and found that most shoppers have existing, trusted sources for recipes, including other websites they may be visiting before making their shopping lists.

The best way to address this issue, he said, is to create more “touch points” with shoppers, such as online discussion forums, product reviews and rating systems.