Results of a survey of food shoppers published in last week's SN raise a couple of questions that are entirely unexpected, yet so fundamental to the food distribution industry that they must be considered further.
The questions are these: Do shoppers readily identify what kinds of stores they are in to buy food, and how do they define what constitutes "shopping"?
The answers to those questions seem obvious on the surface, yet a survey conducted in August by WSL Strategic Retail, New York, showed these strange findings: 21% of those responding to the survey declared they had not shopped a supermarket during the previous three months. But when they were asked where they had purchased groceries, 67% of those actually identified a supermarket as their shopping venue. Indeed, when properly questioned, 93% of consumers identified a supermarket as a retailing style they had patronized during the three-month period.
What can this finding mean? It may mean that many shoppers don't really differentiate between a supermarket and the welter of other stores from which food can be sourced. It may also be that "shopping" means to many consumers a major stock-up trip, not a quick stop to acquire ingredients for dinner.
Maybe at the end of the day it matters little whether shoppers know what a supermarket is, or how they define "shopping." It might be argued that as long as shoppers buy from a supermarket, let them think - if they must - of supermarkets as a generic space where food can be purchased. More likely, though, the finding is a call to action because it indicates that shoppers have been presented with so many different food purchasing alternatives for so long that they are starting to all look alike. That can't be good news.
It seems as though the supermarket industry should be able to define what it is and why it remains the best choice for shoppers who want deep variety at a fair price, and that should be done before a generation grows up that's entirely unfamiliar with the term "supermarket." A modest starting point: Make sure the word "supermarket" appears much more frequently on supermarkets' storefront banners and in advertising.
Now let's take a closer look at what food shopping alternatives present themselves and what supermarkets might be able to do about the situation. It comes as no revelation that supermarkets have much competition from alternative formats, but two news articles in this week's SN serve as a good reminder that the alternatives are growing in number. Alternatives include Amazon.com, Omaha Steaks, Home Shopping Network and the like, plus DIY stores, video stores, convenience stores (see the column below) and even furniture stores. One observer quoted in the news article on Page 27 pointed out that food sales at IKEA are expected to amount to $850 million this year, or 4.5% of that retailer's total sales volume.
One prescription proffered in that news article was that supermarkets should join the fray: "[Supermarkets] need to go to every office building and find an outlet to sell prepared foods for dinner."
In fact, nearly any place that attracts traffic can be seen as a potential partnership. Through it all, though, the notion that a "supermarket" is providing the food must be promoted.