Hey Ma, what's for dinner?
That phrase today can inspire panic in working moms, who not only have to put the family dinner on the table but have to help bring home the bacon, too.
According to Mona Doyle, president of The Consumer Network, a market research firm based in Philadelphia, convenience is becoming a more powerful force than ever, and retailers who don't push themselves to help their shoppers save time risk losing out not only to other supermarkets, but to restaurants and fast-food outlets as well.
In a recent interview with SN about consumer trends in the supermarket perishables departments, Doyle said supermarkets are just now starting to make gains in this area, but added that they need to pick up the pace.
"There's a real shift that's needed to think of optimizing consumers' time and money," she said.
How can retailers do that? They can offer more chilled items, more components that are ready to cook, easily accessible perishables departments that don't require a hike around the store, employees trained to help shoppers make quick meal decisions, variety, a focus on quality and separate checkouts. Shoppers also want to try, at least, to buy healthy meals.
Price is always important, but for perishables it's not the critical factor for those shoppers looking to have their trip to the store be as efficient as possible, said Doyle. She based her remarks on research she completed in late March from reports filed by some 1,600 "mystery shoppers" she had deployed to supermarket fresh departments.
Doyle picked out what she considered particularly telling comments. Here's what the mystery shoppers had to say about fresh departments:
· "I hated the layout of the produce department. It made me zig and zag with no idea where anything was. Even if I got familiar with it, it would be awkward and time-consuming to shop. The produce was really nice, but the layout was such a turnoff that I won't go back unless they are giving something away."
· "The store was the typical low-price rule. What I mean is, the store with the lowest grocery prices will have the poorest meat and so-so produce and less caring people in the perishables departments. So I might come back here for groceries and if they have a big special and I'm ready to buy staples. But I wouldn't shop regularly here for perishables."
· "The milk dates were all over the place and they were out of stock on quarts. That happens in a lot of stores and it makes a really bad impression on me. I like to buy quarts of 1% for me and half-gallons of 2% for the kids and I don't trust a store that is forcing me to buy larger sizes or older products."
Doyle said that her network of mystery shoppers said they would go back to a store if something really impressed them, if, for instance, they were cooking Mexican food and the store had a lot of different peppers to choose from, and if the food was easy to buy. "They just don't have time to do the cherry-picking," she said.
Shoppers are still picky about the food they eat, and they still want to have a hand in making it. "I see the new generation of cake mixes. Shoppers want food where they can input a little of their own imprint," Doyle said. "Think of how many sauces and salsas are available now and how they've exploded."
Another key point that is emerging from her research, Doyle said, is that consumers are much more sophisticated than retailers might give them credit for. "The consumer needs a lot more information, and a lot more reassurance," she said. "There needs to be a lot more marketing."
She said there are still too many shoppers who shy away from prepared foods because they don't know what's in them, and may have had a bad experience one time and are reluctant to try again. "There's room for guarantees, for assurances, for how this is monitored," she said. "There's also room for a lot more tasting."
Health is also important, to a point, Doyle said. "I call it 'half-way healthy,' " she said. "Most of the consumers we talk to are making an effort to be half-way healthy. Even when you see these people eating meat loaf and mashed potatoes, they are doing something for health. They are making an effort, even if it's is changing the fat content in their milk from 2% to 1%."
Doyle predicts a strong future for chilled entrees and convenience-type produce. "There's clearly a broader interest in more ready to cook and ready to heat. The barriers to buying more of those foods are, No. 1, questions about what's really in them, and No. 2, cost. It's perceived that you are paying a lot more for the added value, for the semi-preparation and, of course, you are. But a lot of times the upcharge isn't as great as shoppers assume it to be."
It's basically a matter of perception, and marketing to different customers, Doyle said. Some shoppers might think a component pizza kit is a bargain at $7 each, while others might feel ripped off.
Here, again, is where communicating to the customer comes in, said Doyle. The product has a better chance of selling, she said, if consumers know that what is in it is nothing different from what they'd use to make it at home. "It's kind of what you get with the prepacked salad mixes," she said. "It's almost as good and it's all done for me."
What are supermarkets already doing right for time-pressed shoppers?
"I see that more supermarkets are presenting themselves in terms of their deli and bakery. It's in front, and it's as though they are using that to characterize themselves. I see supermarkets trying to do signature dishes. I think that's being built on," Doyle said.
"One of the things about having a supermarket that has great fresh foods is that if consumers use that market for the deli, they are more likely to use it consistently," Doyle added. "I don't think they shop around the same way for the store that has the best meat buy."
A positive note Doyle added in her conversation with SN is that shoppers "really do love to eat" and have not traded the "lovely glory of food" just to save time. "Sine they have learned to eat Mexican and Chinese in Iowa as well as in New York, this celebration of food is going to continue. It really is amazing how much we've learned in the last generation about food," she said.
What's important for retailers, Doyle said, is to show consumers that the their supermarket is a "really good source of really good food."