Fast, Casual, Fun

What's Wrong With Our Food?

Quality and Packaging Ratings

Engaging Single Shoppers

Fast, 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.

Fast-Casual food 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.


What's 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 Ratings
Consumer Network shoppers rated the quality of products and packaging using a 5-point rating scale where:

Category 1-5 Quality Ratings 1-5 Packaging Ratings
Household 4.3 3.7
Dish detergent 4.3 3.7
Laundry detergent 3.8 3.5
Spray Cleaners
Coffee (ground) 4.1 3.8
Tea (bags) 4.0 3.6
Juices (refrigerated) 3.8 3.6
Personal Care
Shampoo 4.0 3.7
Lotions 3.9 3.5
Mouthwash 3.8 3.0
Food Wraps
Plastic bags 3.8 3.5
Foil 3.7 3.0
Plastic wrap 3.4 3.0
Vegetables 3.5 2.9
Fruits 3.4 2.8
Bagged Salads 3.2 3.0
Canned Foods
Canned Soup 3.4 3.5
Canned Meats 2.6 2.8
Canned Tuna 3.7 3.7
Take Out Foods
At supermarkets 2.9 2.9
At fast food rests 2.9 2.9
At specialty shops 3.8 3.3
Frozen Foods
Frozen Pizza 2.9 3.0
Frozen Entrees 3.1 3.4
Frozen Potatoes 3.2 3.4
Deli Products
Lunchmeats 3.1 2.7
Deli salads 2.9 3.1
Hot dogs 2.9 2.9

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.)
  3. 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.)
  4. 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.
  5. Concern about genetically modified foods and the possibility of leaks like Starlink corn being dangerous.
  6. Recent and widely publicized concerns about the threat of and precautions against Mad Cow and Foot and Mouth Disease.
  7. The popularity of cooking shows that feature gourmet-fresh and premium quality ingredients.
  8. Acknowledgement of, and experience with, the high flavor, freshness and health quality of many ethnic cuisines.
  9. 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.
  10. A lot of table talk but little information or education about food quality or food quality assessment.

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 quality perceptions.

  • 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.


Engaging Single Shoppers
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 their expectations.

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 they may.

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.


Subscriptions to The Shopper Report are available from The Consumer Network at
800/291-0100-Voice or 215/235-6967-Fax.