Wrong With Our Food?
and Packaging Ratings
Casual, and Fun
Big bags of multi-specie animal crackers are office therapy for
harried workers who find the crunchy little animals cute, funny, tasty,
diverting, and a fast-track route to stress relief.
The foods served
up at casual dining restaurants like Friday's, Outback, and local bistros
are casual, fun to order and fun to eat. Fast-casual is healthier and
tastier than greasy fast food. It's also pricier, which doesn't seem
to matter too much, and slower, which matters a lot. So it's not surprising
that the latest restaurant growth niche is Fast Casual.
Casual fun is no
less important at home. The Barbecue Industry Association reports that
the number of barbecue occasions per year (the epitome of casual-fun
at home) has more than doubled to three billion since 1987. And
that weighty number doesn't include the number of meal occasions in
which barbecue sauce is used as a condiment or oven baking sauce for
chicken, pork chops, and hot dogs.
service is racking up healthy growth numbers in express versions of
"old" casual dining formats and "new" restaurant
concepts like bakery cafes featuring artisan breads and soups. Supermarkets
need to keep up with consumers on this trend or risk losing more of
them to other food sources.
Fast-Casual-Fun resonates with what we've been hearing from consumers
and fits the profile of foods they like to eat. It does not fit the
profile of the foods that they perceive to be available to them in their
supermarket delis - which continue to teeter between comfort foods,
traditional foods, and gourmet foods, none of which is perceived as
better quality than fast foods which rate a mediocre 2.9 on the 5-point
scale used in the quality table shown below. Maybe supermarkets are
looking for chefs in the wrong places! Maybe they should be running
events and promotions that center around fast-casual-fun items like
the new Jack Daniels whiskey-bottle barbecue sauces or NOT GREEN
or NOT NEW & IMPROVED ketchup from Heinz. Or maybe
they should take a few steps backward and start with something as basic
as bread and butter.
Good bread coupled
with good butter may be the easiest way to build on the fast-casual
trend. Bread and butter may be packaged together, merchandised together
or simply offered together. Butter is back in favor with many consumers
these days, and bread-and-butter is as old-world delicious as you can
get. Even though it was almost buried near a back wall, the Keller's/La
Brea bread and butter tasting was a taste standout at the June Dairy-Deli-Bakery
show in Minneapolis. Amidst many hundreds of tasting opportunities,
the basic appeal of good bread and butter made a special impression
that supermarkets would do well to recognize and use.
Wrong With Our Food?
Our national cross section of Consumer Network shoppers rated detergent
quality from 4=Good to 5=Excellent. They rated the quality of fresh,
frozen, canned, and take-out foods they are seeing or buying in supermarkets
in the Just Okay=3 range. The only food category on our list that got
high quality ratings was take out food from specialty shops. Our shoppers
gave higher (but not very high) ratings to canned soup than they gave
to frozen entrees or supermarket take out foods. Frozen food packaging
got higher quality scores than the food inside the packages! (That's
partly because consumers who see freezer burn when they first open a
package blame the product rather than the store or the package.) Otherwise,
higher-than-food quality scores went to household products, beverage
products, personal care products, appliances, and even food wraps.
Quality and Packaging
Consumer Network shoppers rated the quality of products and packaging
using a 5-point rating scale where:
fast food rests
The lower quality
ratings of food versus non-food products should be a real challenge
to the food industry, especially to supermarkets which are rated here
as no better than fast food restaurants on take-out food quality.
There are at least
ten major contributors to the low food-quality ratings:
- Years of widely
publicized safety problems including controversy about hormones and
chemicals used to promote growth and/or extend shelf life in meat
and dairy products. Concern here is reinforced by frequent media reminders
that European standards are higher than American standards for beef,
which had been the hallmark of American strength.
- Widespread awareness
of the American overweight problem and its association with the high
sugar and high fat content of our most popular foods. (Except when
judging ice cream, most consumers associate high sugar and high fat
with low quality.)
- Years of irradiation
controversy. (Some consumers think that irradiation would cover up
poor quality. Others think it would make higher quality foods available
in some categories.)
- Broad awareness
of the growth of recalls, especially those attributable to bacteria
problems (at a time when consumers are spending heavily on antibacterial
products for personal care and cleaning products.
- Concern about
genetically modified foods and the possibility of leaks like Starlink
corn being dangerous.
- Recent and widely
publicized concerns about the threat of and precautions against Mad
Cow and Foot and Mouth Disease.
- The popularity
of cooking shows that feature gourmet-fresh and premium quality ingredients.
of, and experience with, the high flavor, freshness and health quality
of many ethnic cuisines.
- A quality-tiered
marketplace in which shoppers who want better quality food from cereal
to sauces know that they have to pay more for it. The quality food
shoppers buy organic, premium or natural products at their supermarkets
or shop at farmers' markets or stores like Whole Foods or Fresh Fields
rather than at conventional supermarkets.
- A lot of table
talk but little information or education about food quality or food
The magazine called
Food Quality is a trade magazine addressed to food and lab technicians.
Women's magazines (and magazines like Men's Health) tend to talk
about food quality in terms of health and wellness. Kristen McNutt's
Digest of Consumer Magazines reports on June articles such as
ASPARTAME MAY IMPAIR MEMORY (in Men's Health); ORGANIC: BETTER
FOR BABY? in Child; and NEW WORLD SYNDROME in Atlantic Monthly.
The New World Syndrome is the introduction of Western, e.g., American,
killer microbes into other less sophisticated cultures. The killer microbes
bring diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure to areas that
previously died from other things.
The Food Industry
Report's May 14, 2001 issue began with dramatic headline: FOOD RECALLS
SOAR 37% IN 2000. Editor/Publisher and industry veteran Jim Russo reported
that "the number of food and beverage recalls soared high above
any total reached for any year during the decade of the 1990's and perhaps
reached an all time high." Bacteria/microbiological recalls, which
consumers are especially anxious about, "increased in 4 of the
past 5 years, which a high of 129 recalls in 2000."
The food industry
is certainly taking the safety challenge seriously, at least at the
top. Progressive Grocer reported on a new Global Food Safety
initiative that will "address the widespread and deep-set unease
that consumers sense today on issues related to the safety of food.
We cannot accept that food items, rightly or wrongly, are perceived
as unsafe. We will shoulder at least our own responsibility of behalf
of the consumer."
We think consumers
have to see, hear, and experience food differently to change their food
- They need to
see, hear, and smell things they associate with safety and perceive
as marks of quality.
- Since today's
consumers are accustomed to seeing 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 star ratings
of restaurants and movies, they may need ways to measure quality or
sources of quality measurement for the foods they purchase and the
meals they fix at home.
- They need to
stop finding "old ground beef inside of new" and ingredient
statements and freshness dates in clearer and higher contrast print.
(The "old ground beef inside of new" comment is hard to
believe in 2001 but it was made in June of this year by a 36 year
old shopper from Pittsburgh who was asking us if it was legal as well
as telling us about it. We can add the comment to the reasons for
moving further toward centralized meat packaging but we'd welcome
input on how we should respond to that shopper besides suggesting
that she tell her store manager about it.)
- Since price is
a factor in quality perception, maybe retailers will have to find
a way of putting prices back on food packages - or having consumers
find them there during the use phase if not during the purchase phase
- perhaps via scanners that price mark the products as they are scanned.
The 2000 census found that roughly 26% of all households in this country
were single person households. That translates to 27.2 million people
- most of whom feel that they aren't very well served by supermarkets
- largely because they are forced to pay premiums for the small sizes
that make sense for them.
Women who stay single
indefinitely or until they are in their thirties or forties are an important
part of this demographic for drug stores, convenience stores, book stores,
music stores, and specialty stores. Supermarkets are trying to entice
them with prepared food sections and in-store Starbucks - both of which
speak their language much better than aisles of boxes and cans. Still,
singles have less tolerance for waiting (they haven't had to adapt to
waiting for their partner) so most supermarket express lines don't meet
In Japan, where
real estate is horrendously expensive, these women are called "wagamama"
which the New York Times translates as willful, selfish, choosy, and
determined to enjoy their life. Their importance to Japan's economy
is recognized and bemoaned, largely because they are blamed for Japan's
alarmingly low birth rate. In this country, we don't have good words
for this group of women (or the single men they work and party with.)
American Demographics has coined the word "boomerangers" to
describe the adult children of boomers who continue leave and return
home. But boomerangers are a drop in the bucket of unmarried 20- and
30-something consumers that support Starbucks, don't do much or any
cooking, and have little to do with today's supermarkets.
The New York Times
"wagamama" story hit home here because three women who fit
the pattern are part of my immediate family. (Being an only child, I
include first cousins in my immediate family.) Besides seeing it in
my own family, I did a focus group with six unmarried women in this
age cohort just last month.
The 30+ unmarried
cohort is almost as large in this country as it is in Japan but there
are many differences between the two nationalities. American "wagamamas"
are faster to admit that their freedom has its downsides. They are more
likely to have a real career as opposed to a job, more likely to feel
somewhat uncomfortable about their matelessness, more likely to consider
becoming a single parent by choice, and more apt to explain that the
main reason they are single is that they haven't found a Mr. Right or
been willing to compromise with or for any of the guys they've found.
One of the revealing comments in the singles focus group was made by
a thirty-something woman who blushed when admitting that venting by
poking holes in package seals made her feel like she was cooking while
venting by pulling back film corners seemed an unpleasant chore. (The
psychology here includes the fun of stabbing the package, the difficulty
of grasping and pulling edges, and the fear of tearing the film or taking
it too far.)
Of course today's
young men also have something to do with the fact that so many over-thirties
are single. Some observers believe that many American young men feel
betrayed by a culture in which they feel less needed and have lost power
and the masculine pride that came with being the suitor, the provider,
and the date that paid for dinner, drinks or the movies. The fact that
most of today's American women can support themselves is one part of
the marriage decline. The fact that so many have first hand experience
with divorce is another part. The fact that neither men nor women have
to be able to cook to live independently is still another. The fact
that both men and women can dance a night away without actually partnering
or asking anyone to dance is another part. But do all of these parts
have anything to do with supermarkets and the food industry? Indeed
This issue of The
Shopper Report began with a report on the fast, casual and fun foods
that speak the language and use the symbols understood by this generation
of singles, whatever their sex and whether or not they live alone. Incorporating
Starbuck's counters and table seating areas into the supermarket space
is one of the moves in this direction. This partnership may be a poor
use of space in terms of supermarket sales per square foot but it does
create an in-store space that makes comfort sense to singles - even
when there's no one behind the counter to serve the latté. And
if these women really get comfy, they will probably pick up and purchase
some "pokeable" packages on the way out.