The truth about convenience

by Staff
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Often, when researchers think of consumer demand for convenience, their needs are framed in terms of time. But is the attraction of convenience really about saving time or is it more about minimizing effort? Do consumers prefer one-stop shopping because it saves time or because it avoids the hassle of going from store to store? Just how much time do convenience foods save and is that what consumers like about them?

If what consumers actually do is at least as revealing as what they say, saving time may not be the most important benefit of convenience foods. Anthropologists at the University of California at Los Angeles’ Sloan Center on Everyday Lives of Families and observations from longitudinal ethnographic research demonstrate that using convenience foods is hardly about saving time per se.

Putting a meal on the table takes essentially the same amount of time, regardless of what goes into the meal. It’s as if households budget a certain amount of time and work within that relatively unchanging constraint. What matters, however, is the kind of meal made possible, because incorporating convenience foods permits households to use their time differently.

Seeing what consumers do with their time makes it apparent convenience foods don’t buy time so much as allow it to be redirected. On balance, timesaving is a valuable aspect of convenience foods because it reduces the total effort required to put together a meal in a given period of time.

In general, convenience foods are looked upon less as total meal solutions as ingredients to a meal. For this reason, it’s important that convenience foods facilitate the cook’s efforts to tailor family meals to the varying tastes within a household. Well over half of consumers say it’s very/ extremely important for convenience foods to satisfy the widest range of tastes (60%) or be easily "doctored" to suit one’s tastes (55%). Moreover, the value of convenience foods is not merely in meal preparation. When asked to choose whether convenience foods should play a bigger role when making the meal than when clearing it away, consumers split down the middle, with about half (49%) saying both are equally important.

The value of convenience to consumers is often figured by viewing it through the lens of saved time. This is no accident, because the legacy of industrialization, which revolutionized traditional notions of time productivity, has insinuated itself into nearly every facet of modern life.

Small wonder that convenience and saving time have come to mean the same thing to so many. But today’s consumer never struggles to find time for agreeable activities. Five minutes of nerve-shattering frustration lasts interminably longer than five hours of unadulterated bliss. Whether the value of convenience has anything to do with timesaving, therefore, depends on how the time saved would have been spent.

I doubt if manufacturers consider the time it takes consumers to clean up after a meal. Microwavable frozen meals, for example, don’t require much in the way of cooking utensils. Many may be consumed right out of the container.

Another common example of products that permit tailoring is the use of prepared pasta sauce as a "base" to which various ingredients may be added, such as sautéed vegetables and cooked meats. There is also the common practice of mixing condensed soup with other ingredients to make casseroles, vegetable side dishes, etc. Other components are expressly intended to serve as one component in a dish. Think dry seasoning mixes, Hamburger Helper or Rice-A-Roni.

Simplifying meal preparation and clean up, removing drudgery, and facilitating personalization should be the principal design goals of convenience foods. Convenience, for consumers, is defined by the quality of the time they save. Connecting notions of less time in the kitchen with more time with family, and less stress about cleaning house with increased energy for recreational activities means far more to consumers than the calculated minutes and seconds they may save.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, June 10, 2008, starting on Page 75. Click here to search that archive.

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