F.M.I. says food and fuel costs pressure consumers

by Keith Nunes
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LAS VEGAS — Economic pressures related to energy and food costs are impacting how consumers shop, cook and eat out, according to the Food Marketing Institute’s U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends 2008 report. Economic concerns are compelling Americans to cook at home more and eat out less often. In fact, families eat their main meal at restaurants only 1.2 times per week, down from 1.3 in 2007 and 1.5 in 2006, according to the report.

Consumers are buying fewer luxury foods (67%) and more store-brand items (60%) and eating more leftovers (58%).The high cost of fuel is contributing to the decline in the number of shopping trips consumers make per week, dipping below two for the second straight year at 1.9. When deciding where to shop, 37% of consumers cited "low prices" as the overriding factor, up from 31% in 2007 and well ahead of "convenient location," the second most often cited factor at 13%.

"Food retailers can turn these economic challenges into benefits for consumers and the industry," said Tim Hammonds, president and chief executive officer of the Food Marketing Institute. "As people eat out less often, we can help revive the great American home family meal tradition. This presents retailers an opportunity to win back a share of the meal-time market long owned by restaurants, and it provides families important health, economic and social benefits."

The report also found consumers’ confidence in the safety of food bought at supermarkets rebounded to 81%, from the 18-year low of 66% last year. But consumer confidence is fragile, with only 11% saying they are "completely confident," down from 15% in 2007, and 70% are "somewhat confident." Consumer confidence in the safety of food served at restaurants increased to 65%, from 43% in 2007.

Nutrition continues to be a top-of-mind issue for consumers, with 41% "very concerned" about the nutritional content of the foods they eat, and 47% "somewhat concerned," according to the survey. When evaluating whether a food is nutritious, shoppers focus most on the fat content listed on the Nutrition Facts Panel, with more than half checking saturated fat, trans fat and total fat. More than 4 in 10 check the calorie count, look for whole grains and focus on the salt, sugar and cholesterol levels.

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