Anyone who has walked the expansive McCormick Center halls at the Chicago FMI Show learns to welcome little conveniences. At last week's event the ubiquitous energy drinks, ice cream bars and bakery items were just-in-time solutions for visitor fatigue. Also convenient were the new Category Closeup seminars, which brought educational programs right to the show floor.
But it was consumer convenience that seemed to occupy a lot of discussion at the show's seminars. Consumers' ever-increasing demand for convenience has been accepted as a given. And supermarkets are still viewed as the format offering the most convenience items to shoppers, said Michael Sansolo, FMI's senior vice president, citing FMI research during the Speaks presentation.
But that same research shows discount stores are the consumers' favored format for low prices, a trait sure to take on more importance in a slowing economy.
And if there was any doubt, FMI's new statistics confirm that the supermarket industry and consumers have felt the impact of the national downturn. A story that begins on Page 1 cites figures unveiled at the Speaks presentation. The growth in median retail sales during 2000 leveled off to 4.2% from 5.1% the year before. Median identical store sales growth was 1.8%, the lowest level since 1992 for the industry.
Fortunately, despite the slowdown, Sansolo said the data shows convenience still outranks price as the primary reason consumers will choose a store. This is particularly true for certain consumer segments, such as families that have children and a working female spouse.
The continued preference for convenience over price is good news for supermarkets, but it's no reason for operators to become complacent. There's more the industry can do to remind consumers of the convenience of home meal preparation as opposed to visits to restaurants -- which often come with long lines and waits. Video clips played during Speaks showed food retailer television spots that artfully stressed the advantages of home meal preparation. FMI's data documents that shortcuts like heat-and-eat, marinated meats or bagged salads are popular alternatives to traditional cooking.
Many other aspects of supermarket convenience can be trumpeted by retailers. Sansolo noted that 50% of shoppers of stores with gas stations say they use those stations. On the high-tech convenience side, FMI's SuperTechMart exhibit portrayed consumers shopping on-line with personal digital assistants and mobile phones, and communicating with personal shoppers with a camera linked to a home computer.
It's clear that supermarkets have many of the elements needed to make consumers' lives easier. Shoppers just need to be enlightened about these, and reminded over and over. After all, consumers are busier than ever. They may forget.