CHICAGO -- A third of consumers in Chicago think of the supermarket as a place to buy their evening meal already prepared, according to a new research study.
USA Chicago, a marketing and communications firm here, reported that its research, based on surveys of 25,000 Chicago-area households conducted last month, shows that Chicago represents an even stronger fresh-meals market than previously thought.
The company distributed a 20-question printed survey across a wide range of demographic groups, and received 1,100 responses, officials at USA Chicago told SN.
Consumers were asked about their eating habits. They were also asked what improvements in supermarket delis would spur them to seek meal solutions there. To that question, a majority of respondents said they would want a separate cash register at the deli or home-meal replacement center, and a more adequate selection of meal components to choose from.
Not surprisingly, they -- as have respondents in other recent studies -- put quality at the top of the list of what they expect of HMR in general. The list they chose from included price, convenience, service, selection and nutrition. More than 700 respondents said quality is "very important." Respondents also said they don't want prepacked meals in which the side dishes are determined for them. One respondent said, "I hate potatoes. I don't want them with my meal. I want to choose what goes with it."
Patrick Yanahan, president of USA Chicago, said that the fresh ready-made meals market could prove lucrative, given consumers' responses. "The market for alternatives to home cooking is stronger than we had even anticipated," Yanahan said.
"In follow-up telephone interviews, some of which I did myself, people told us they just don't have time to even think about the evening meal during the week. They don't know at 4 o'clock what they're going to eat that night. They said they see cooking becoming a weekend recreation for them," he said.
The survey showed that 97% of respondents decide at least once a week to find an alternative to cooking at home. Of that group, 28% said picking up prepared food on their way home was the home-cooked meal replacement option they most often selected.
Three percent of respondents said they seek alternatives to home-cooked meals five to six times a week. And a full 32% of all respondents said they would consider a supermarket deli as a source for their evening meal.
But 60% said they prefer to dine out when opting not to cook.
"That's good news for those supermarkets venturing into sit-down cafes. Positioning such operations as convenient, well-staffed sources of quality meals will help compete against fast-food restaurants," the USA Chicago survey summary concluded.
Yanahan added he was surprised that the sentiment about eating out ran the gamut of age groups from 18-year-olds to people in their 50s. "We thought it would be more the young couples," Yanahan said. He hadn't anticipated that older people would represent such a strong market for ready-to-eat food to take home. "But people in their 50s, where both husband and wife work, said that while they like to go out sometimes, they often just want to pick up something on the way home, and enjoy it in front of the TV," he added.
There are big implications here for both supermarkets and restaurants in such trends, Yanahan said. They both could gear circulars or ads to promote takeout, perhaps coupled with specials on Fridays, he suggested.
One thing that Yanahan said did not surprise him was that nearly a third of respondents said they'd consider picking up their evening meal at a supermarket.
"This is Chicago and some of the supermarkets, like Dominick's, have done a very good job at their superstores of putting together some nice meals. I think people think of them as a place to get dinner. The quality is great -- better than Boston Market and cheaper," Yanahan said.
Not only that, but Dominick's is tailoring its prepared-meals mix to individual neighborhoods, Yanahan said, such as offering items that would appeal to an Hispanic population in a neighborhood where Hispanics are concentrated, he said.
"These Dominick's and other Chicago supermarkets are very smart marketers," Yanahan said. He added that Jewel Food Stores is more recently getting into meals marketing in a serious way, "and I think they'll catch up pretty quickly."
"The big chains know this HMR trend is an unstoppable phenomenon," Yanahan said.
Many of the survey's results reinforced USA Chicago's assessment of the meal-replacement market, Yanahan said. One major view held by USA Chicago that the survey confirmed is that people are working harder than ever, he said.
"Nobody's working 35 hours or 40 hours a week; it's more like 60 or 70 hours and people have second jobs," he said. That's behind a full 60% of respondents saying Friday is their crash night and therefore they look to pick up something to take home and eat that night.
"The thought of going to a formal sit-down restaurant on Friday is just not what they want. A lot of the young people have second jobs or are going to school at night, and Friday is their first free night of the week. They said they didn't want to stay in business dress and go through that two-and-a-half-hour ordeal of eating out," Yanahan said.
Saturday is different. "You have Saturday to rest and then you can go out socially to eat."
But the research showed that opportunities to supply meals to take home are "big, big, big" for both supermarkets and restaurants, Yanahan said.
Operators could zero in on the 28% who already look for meals to take home, Yanahan said. Supermarkets need to change their formats so customers walk into an area where it's apparent that ready-to-eat meal components are available. He also suggested adding a selection of hot foods to choose from. "We're definitely seeing more of that in the Midwest," Yanahan added.
The USA Chicago study suggested the desire for convenience could motivate consumers' selection of a meals provider. Of the respondents, 541 said a separate checkout at the deli would be the improvement they'd like most to see in stores. And 501 respondents chose "more selections" as the top suggested improvement.
"Clearly, consumers do not relish the thought of holding their dinner in their hands while waiting for the customer ahead to unload and pay for a week's worth of groceries," said USA Chicago in the study's summary.
Increased selection of products and improved quality were chosen by 320 respondents as top suggestions, indicating that consumers expect supermarket meals offerings to be on a par with restaurant fare, said USA Chicago analysts.
A drive-through window was mentioned by 248 respondents as the top desirable improvement. A separate entrance was chosen by 214, taste by 211, and dedicated parking by 155.
The USA Chicago analysts said that while drive-through windows may seem the ultimate way to offer convenience, some consumers said they harbor reservations about that method of service.
"What consumer hasn't been handed a bag of food, driven home, then discovered the order was incorrectly filled?" Also drive-through windows do not allow for viewing of food items prior to purchase. "Even vividly illustrated menu boards cannot replace an artfully merchandised deli case," the report concluded.
Paradoxically, about the same number of consumers said they found the supermarket deli convenient as found it inconvenient, for picking up take-home meal items.
A little more than 250 chose "convenient" as the reason why they would choose the deli. Other attributes they could have chosen from included quality, but that only received votes from a little more than 100. Service was at the bottom of the list, with only 50 respondents saying they would go to a supermarket deli because of the service.
Between 200 and 250 respondents said they would not go to a supermarket deli for meal items because they considered the operation inconvenient. But more than 150 said they "don't know" why they wouldn't go to a supermarket deli for meals.
More than 500 respondents chose chicken as their favorite ready-to-eat entree. The next most popular was beef with between 200 and 300 respondents choosing it.
What could be an eye-opener though, said Yanahan, is that bakery products play a big role in home-meal alternatives, the survey indicated. More than 600 respondents identified bakery as an important HMR component.
"Dessert is a big issue. Should desserts be part of home-meal replacement? In-store bakeries are looking at that. We're starting a desserts study right now. We'll do it on a national basis," Yanahan said. More than anything, dessert preferences are regional, he added, pointing out that each region needs to be studied.
Separate checkouts in the department and a bigger selection of meal components are the improvements most apt to bring consumers into the supermarket deli for their meals purchases, a USA Chicago survey shows. Consumers could choose from: separate entrance, separate checkout, drive-through, dedicated parking, quality of food, taste, selection and other.
More than half of the respondents suggested a separate cash register as the top improvement they would want. Nearly half put a better selection of meal items at the top of their priority lists.