BOSTON (FNS) -- Hearing the mantra of keynote speaker Bill Pizzico -- "It's time to talk to consumers" -- attendees at the annual conference and expo of the Northeast Fresh Foods Alliance here seized the chance to query a six-member panel of consumer-survey respondents about their purchasing habits.
"We kind of want it all," said panelist Cheryl Francis of Providence, R.I. Shoppers want prepared meals to combine the home-cooked taste of the 1950s with the convenience of the 1990s, she said.
A wider selection of prepared meals is also wanted, panelists said, along with niche items such as low-sodium and sugar-free, and dairy products with a longer shelf life. Planning ahead and buying on sale are key with these consumers, who cited a heavy reliance on supermarket circulars and coupons in guiding their purchasing habits.
"If there's one thing you should know it's that it's amazing how many people coupon-shop," said Karen Heller of Manchester, N.H. "We're all coupon shoppers."
In response to a question about meal planning, Marleen Blair of Albany, N.Y., said her food shopping was "spontaneous" one day a week after work, when she dines alone. "What looks good, goes home," she said.
Of the four women and two men on the panel, none said they food shop on the Internet, but predicted their children would.
"I will never shop over the Internet," said Blair. "I want to see what I'm getting."
As for in-store samples, "I like them, but I'm not sure how many people buy them," Heller said.
"I would like to sample more exotic produce, like lemongrass and yucca," said Robert Hayman of Hartford, Conn.
The panelists, from throughout the Northeast, were selected from a data base of approximately 2,500 households who responded to an NEFFA-sponsored consumer survey on fresh foods.
Highlights of the survey results were briefly presented by Pizzico, president and chief executive officer of Prizm Marketing, Blue Bell, Pa.
Seventy-six percent of respondents shop their supermarket's in-store bakery. Those who don't cite price and quality as the biggest reasons. When asked where they most frequently purchase baked goods, 55% said in-store, 25% said supermarket commercial bakery aisles and 2% said retail chain bakeries.
Sixty-six percent said they go to purchase feature items; 43% because of store appeal; 39% because of convenience.
Forty-three percent stated they purchase imported dairy, deli or bakery products. The most important reasons for buying were taste, price and food safety. The largest age group most likely to buy these items was aged 36 to 45.
Respondents also said that the most important influences on deli purchases were special/feature items; the cleanliness/appearance of the deli case; variety and quality offered.
When asked what most influenced their fresh-meat purchases, 96% cited cleanliness/appearance of the fresh-meat case; 90% said cost; 89% said food-safety issues; 86% said special/feature item of the week; 85% said variety/quality offered; 79% said availability of fresh grind/cuts.
Respondents were skewed toward middle-aged and older consumers, with 32% over age 65; 20% aged 36 to 45 and 18% 46 to 55.
"We are an industry in transition," Pizzico said in his address. "We are going from commodity-based and economically driven sales and marketing strategies to consumer-driven and value-based strategies."
Pizzico also noted "directional trends" that include more single and double-size packaging, as well as dual-ovenable containers. The kitchen-ready category also will increase, he predicted. Ethnic "variety" foods will replace ethnic "themes," and more products will be offered that are Asian, Tex-Mex, Italian and Mexican, he said.
Fully cooked prepared meals "will be on every shopper's list in the future," Pizzico said. Here, private labeling will be the key to profitability, since it will enable retailers to exercise more control over pricing, cost and distribution.
"The supermarket is the most convenient place to shop for variety in home-meal replacement," he added. "I don't even know if we believe that ourselves."