WASHINGTON -- While consumers continue to view milk as a viable source of essential nutrients, they are not eager to accept it as an accompaniment to prepared meal offerings, according to a recent survey.
Sponsored by the Fluid Milk Strategic Thinking Initiative, a cooperative effort of the Milk Industry Foundation, the Milk Processor Education Program and Dairy Management Inc., the study -- "Opportunities and Obstacles in Home Meal Replacement" -- aimed to "profile consumer perceptions of milk as both a current and potential accompaniment to [fresh meals]."
The study was based on a roster of consumer focus groups, as well as personal interviews with food-service operators, supermarket operators and milk processors. Hale Group, the Danvers, Mass.-based consulting firm brought in to conduct the survey, concluded that, overall, milk is not viewed as a strong fresh-meals beverage.
"In some ways we hoped to find that with the growth of home-meal replacement, there would be a consequent growing need for single-serve milk containers," said Tom Nagle Jr., vice president of marketing at the International Dairy Foods Association here and manager of the Fluid Milk Strategic Thinking Initiative. "Unfortunately, we didn't find that to be true."
He added, however, that this dilemma is not exclusive to the fluid-milk category.
"Frankly, consumers aren't looking for single-serve beverages to go with these meals," he said. "They are looking to utilize what they already have in their homes."
A persistent problem has been that consumers tend to view any take-home meal as a sort of "treat" and therefore want, and allow their children to have, a more treat-type beverage, like a soft drink. In that respect, some parents did express the idea that flavored milk could probably qualify as a treat-type drink.
Those interviewed were also "adamant that milk must be drunk immediately after being taken out of refrigeration." With that in mind, participants claimed they would not bring milk home with a prepared meal for fear it would become too warm to drink.
Nagle was quick to point out that while opportunities for single-serving sales may not be great in this area, the prepared-meal department is an ideal location for an additional display of multiserve containers of gallons, half-gallons and quarts.
"People are treating the HMR area as a sort of fast-food restaurant," Nagle said. "If they are shopping there, they probably don't want to, or don't have the time to, go to any other departments. But, if there was a display here, of multiserving milk containers, [shoppers] may remember they are running low and pick up a container, whereas, if the display hadn't been there, they probably wouldn't have made the extra trip to the milk department."
While multiple-display locations may seem like a profitable plan, problems could ensue due to the difficulty of deciphering where in the store the milk is actually being picked up. Without the use of separate stockkeeping units, it would be virtually impossible to determine.
"In the supermarkets you have a sort of a turf issue," Nagle said. "The argument inevitably arises over [what department] will get credit for the sale."
However, the study summarized that giving milk a secondary point of distribution, in the prepared-meals area, could "help supermarkets wrestle away fill-in milk shopping from convenience stores, which could lead to increased store-milk sales needed to justify milk's presence in the HMR area."
Nagle said that the majority of participants report continually replenishing their home stock of milk, as well as always knowing how much they have and how fresh it is. They claim to purchase milk anywhere from once every 10 days to three or four times per week, with the majority of those purchases taking place at the supermarket.
"One thing that really hurts [the category] is consumers' rationing behavior when it comes to milk," said Nagle. "They may claim to never run out, but if they find themselves running low at dinner time, they will save the milk for breakfast and have soda or something else with dinner, rather than running out to get more."
He added that such "fill-in purchases" could easily be accommodated by secondary, convenience-focused displays, providing consumers easier and more constant access to multiserve containers and eliminating their need to ration or give that milk sale to another establishment.
Nagle hoped the survey results would not "create the mistaken idea that single-serve milk cannot be sold in the meals area."
Consumers did report an interest in single-serve containers to accompany workday lunches purchased in the supermarket, as well as meals eaten in supermarket seating areas or on-the-go, though again, not at home.