In a former life, I covered the fashion business as an editor for a retail clothing trade magazine. When I became an editor at SN 10 years ago, I exchanged paisleys for paninis. But to my pleasant surprise, I was still reporting on fashion.
Food is definitely a fashion business. Consumers regularly change their minds about which foods are important to them. But taking the pulse of consumers involves more than just visiting stores or talking to retailers. The most reliable feedback comes directly from shoppers.
One of the best in the business of soliciting consumer feedback is Mona Doyle, president of Consumer Network, Philadelphia. Mona is a longtime observer of consumer food attitudes and bases findings on her panel of some 4,000 supermarket shoppers.
Recently, I challenged Mona to pinpoint the current mood of consumers. During a similar discussion shortly after 9/11, Mona told me people would be going back to basics, eating more meals at home, and embracing comfort foods. She was right. The country needed to be comforted and to reprioritize.
But things are somewhat different now, as Mona explained. Comfort foods waned as consumers became more conditioned to the risks of terrorism. So what is Mona's fashion forecast for food trends? People are ready for something different, she stressed. They are craving variety. But they aren't willing to give up the right to convenience and easy preparation. Here are some of her specifics on what consumers want and her constructive advice to supermarkets:
"EASY WOW ": Shoppers want ideas for easy meals that can produce a "wow" at home, even if it's just a "little wow." But these ideas need to be more sophisticated than before. This means showcasing foods that incorporate new flavors and perhaps evoke ideas from TV cooking shows. "You see flavor and variety in cheese and ice cream, but not in some other parts of the store," Mona observed. And whether it's a big or little wow, it better not cost too much.
"CONTEMPORARY RETRO": Consumers are looking to the past for ideas, but with a twist. They are searching for traditional foods that are updated or enhanced. "A lot of foods can be like that," Mona said. "There are lots of new variations of macaroni and cheese with new shapes of macaroni and new flavors of cheese."
ETHNIC INFUSION: Mainstream foods that incorporate ethnic elements will be much in demand. This is already evident in restaurants and in the frozen aisles of supermarkets. "You see Asian touches in everything, such as chicken with teriyaki sauce," she said. Mona's advice: "Make it easier for consumers to make exotic meals at home or to add a special sauce. Consider an idea center in the store with ethnic items."
SANDWICH SAVVY: Sandwiches are in the spotlight as consumers insist on healthy and convenient solutions. But supermarkets are off base with the opportunity in sandwiches, Mona warned. "Most sandwiches consumers eat are hot and made to order, but most supermarket sandwiches are cold and pre-made. Supermarkets aren't positioning themselves to catch this wave."