ANAHEIM, Calif. — If anything is apparent in 2011, it's that the consumer is firmly in control. The new mantra is “Engage me, or lose me.” The consumer paradigm shift was the common theme that echoed throughout the annual roundup of trends and insights presented by Carol Christison, executive director of the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association.
“One of the trends threading throughout everything we've talked about today is how the business model has changed, and it's changed for one reason,” she said. “The world has become consumer-dominant. We've seen it in chat rooms, blogs and in user-generated videos on YouTube. Nothing is sacred and everything is transparent.”
The realm of social media has quickly grown into a vast and far-reaching landscape. Consumers can comment or complain in open forums about products, companies or services. Service-focused companies like supermarkets are meeting this challenge by employing more sophisticated customer-service strategies that monitor what people are saying.
“One of the more interesting job titles is that of chief listener,” said Christison. “A chief listener's job is to analyze the number and types of mentions their company or brand gets online. They're not just counting the number of mentions, they're looking at the quality and kinds of comments, both positive and negative.” Christison cited one example of a guest who was contacted by the hotel chain he was staying at on the same day he complained on Twitter about his accommodations.
“Within minutes the front desk called and gave the man a new room,” she said. Whether the feedback is positive or negative, this active listening, called post-positioning branding, can help companies grow. Consumers who like a brand or retailer form “a credible, unpaid army of spokespeople” who use social media to shout the brand's benefits. In short, what the company says about itself or the brand doesn't matter, Christison added.
One of the many challenges for consumers and supermarkets alike is the sheer number of smartphone apps out there that focus on food and shopping. ShopSavvy searches out the lowest prices at stores within a set area. Yowza uses global-positioning software to send coupons redeemable at nearby stores. GroceryIQ allows users to create shopping lists, organize them, get applicable coupons and share with others.
Among the more compelling developments in apps are aisle-by-aisle maps of individual stores that guide shoppers to the exact shelf of the product they're looking for. One of them, called Aisle411, is used by more than 4,000 stores around the country, including Jewel-Osco , Schnuck Markets  and Stop & Shop . A similar app called GroceryIQ and created by Coupons.com , is used by Safeway  and ShopRite .
Christison mentioned plenty of food trends as well — many of them culled from her travels over the past year. The breakfast daypart is growing. There's interest in breakfast pizza, cooked cereal and handheld egg sandwiches. Just make sure the coffee is good, for that's the biggest factor in a consumer's decision where to purchase breakfast, she noted. Focused menus, where eateries limit themselves to one type of food — just grilled cheese, for instance, or meatballs — are big, as are food trucks and their “rodeos.”
Capitalizing on the cupcake trend, some operators are now promoting pies. One company makes mini pies in mason jars, a move that incorporates portion-control and a small, affordable indulgence. Small is playing out in other ways in the food business. Consumers are moving towards customized products, locally sourced foods and daily trips to specialty markets.
Indeed, “small” is the next big business. All the small-footprint formats under development by the nation's biggest retailers (most recently, Wal-Mart Stores ) are not only ideal vehicles to promote the on-point trends of fresh, local and clean, but they position companies to get back into urban markets. Christison cited Trendwatching.com  in describing a new wave of “citysumers” who are poised to drive a new era of retail development focused on densely populated market areas. Currently, nearly 200,000 people around the world move to cities daily, a migration that is creating 60 million urbanites every year.
“One prediction says that by 2050, three-fourths of the world's population will live in cities,” she said. “This has a huge impact for us because it will change how and where people shop. It will also change the number, format and location of the stores we build.”