Startling shifts in consumer shopping patterns

by Keith Nunes
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KANSAS CITY — The Food Marketing Institute has been conducting its U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends survey since 2006, and the most recent update shows surprising shifts in where consumers are shopping, or, more appropriately, where they are not shopping. Most notably, in 2006 64% of respondents said supermarkets were their outlet of choice. That number has fallen to 52% in the 2015 edition of the survey.

With that data in mind it is appropriate to ask, where are consumers going to buy groceries? The F.M.I. survey includes such additional retail formats as supercenters, club stores, discounters, limited assortment operators and organic/specialty outlets, and, except for supercenters, all of the other retail channels have held relatively steady since 2006. With regard to supercenters, in 2006, 23% of shoppers indicted they were the outlet of choice. That number rose to 29% in 2013, but has fallen back to 23% in 2015.

What stands out from the survey is the number of consumers who indicate they have “no primary outlet.” This option was added to the survey in 2011 and 2% of survey takers chose it. In the 2014 and 2015 surveys, that number had risen to a whopping 9%.

There are a number of reasons why so many consumers now say they have no primary outlet. The recession, for example, has made consumers more value focused and some shoppers may be more willing to visit multiple outlets in an effort to save money.

But one cannot discount the impact of food service on supermarkets. This past May the National Restaurant Association noted that monthly sales at restaurants surpassed grocery store sales. The gap between grocery store sales and restaurant sales began narrowing in 2010, as more consumers began purchasing groceries at alternative retail formats, the N.R.A. said. December 2014 marked the first month on record that restaurant sales exceeded grocery store sales, and the trend has accelerated in the months since. In June 2014, grocery store sales exceeded restaurant sales by $1.6 billion, and in April 2015, restaurant sales surpassed grocery store sales by $1.5 billion.

Part of the reason for the shift in restaurant and supermarket sales may be attributed to how consumers are planning meals, of which the F.M.I. said immediate consumption now accounts for 16% of all eating occasions. Supermarkets are enhancing their prepared foods services and offerings in an effort to regain share, but the shift in dollar sales highlights how dramatically the market is shifting.

As the changes taking place at retail continue, one must also consider the impact e-commerce is going to have on the segment. Both Wal-Mart Stores and Kroger are investing heavily in concepts designed to enhance how they interact with consumers. Those efforts combined with such food service outlets as McDonald’s and Starbucks testing delivery programs ensures the market will continue to shift.

Consumers today have an unprecedented number of options to shop for food, beverages and prepared meals. As these options continue to grow it is more important than ever for food companies to keep pace. The market is in a period of disruption and processors must meet the challenge of being where the consumer wants their products to be.

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