PHILADELPHIA -- For the third time in as many years, an annual survey examining consumer attitudes toward supermarket fresh meals warns that retailers continue to leave out the key word that defines the term: fresh.
Nearly 1,000 shoppers nationwide participated in at least part of the poll by Consumer Research Network, based here. This latest survey attracted more responses than past questionnaires, signaling growing interest in what supermarkets are doing -- or not doing, according to Mona Doyle, company president.
"Many want to make sure that [the food] is fresh every day," she said. "Some are asking to have foods labeled by the hour. Some feel that prepared foods are being confused with deli foods."
Based on the responses, Doyle said, she can see two categories of consumers emerging in the fresh-meals business. The first is still too skeptical to purchase meals from supermarkets, and the second is not satisfied with the current menu of offerings.
However, both groups are most concerned about one thing: freshness.
According to Doyle, the response of one consumer polled is typical of the majority: "Date of preparation should be obvious in showcases of takeout food. I've looked several times but haven't made a purchase because nothing is dated."
Indeed, 45% of respondents "agree strongly" that they would purchase more takeout foods if they could be sure they were fresh. The challenge for retailers is how to convey that impression in the most effective manner possible.
"The fact that food service can 'get way with' consumer assumptions does not mean that a supermarket doing food service can do the same thing," observed Doyle. "Because they're dealing with a different set of consumer expectations."
The survey results indicate that shoppers are holding supermarkets to a higher standard than restaurants not only when it comes to value, but also as a source of information. Doyle said that consumers therefore use preparation dates as one of their most important decision-making tools in deciding whether to make the purchase.
Besides preparation dates, consumers mentioned related information that they feel is indispensable: a list of ingredients, nutritional facts and rethermalization instructions, among others.
In short, they are demanding the same thing they found on the frozen dinners of yesteryear.
The absence of information on the amount of fat and sodium in fresh-meals items was particularly irksome to some, and cited in their responses.
"I can't trust supermarket takeout to make healthy food," wrote one participant. "Even their salads and vegetables are drenched in fat."
Doyle said she finds this opinion troublesome, because it indicates a shift away from the long-held consumer perception that supermarkets are the place to shop for healthy foods.
"Even if the consumer was buying a lot of junk food in the supermarket, they still felt healthier about it than they did about other options" like fast-food restaurants and delis, she noted.
One of the easiest ways for retailers to boost the freshness factor is simply to narrow the number of selections available on a given day. Doyle said this tactic can not only develop the "value" part of the success equation, but also reduce shrink.
"Supermarkets should look at what happened to Boston Chicken when it became Boston Market and lost its chicken-and-sides focus and its profitability with a varied menu that delivered less quality and more hassle," she said. "Supermarkets are doing much the same thing. To earn trust and money at the same time, supermarkets should do less and do it better."
Doyle cited as one example what Lakeland, Fla.-based Publix Super Markets is doing to build on the "fresh" perception. The chain offers daily specials, available only one day a week.
Doyle said the message to customers reinforces the fresh message, since it's only available one day, and "there is a double incentive to try it once and buy it again if it proves to be satisfying."