When Van's Thriftway in Helena, Mont., began carrying half-loaves of bread from Wheat Montana Farms & Bakery, store manager Tim Hoffert doubted they would sell.
As it turned out, the eight-slice loaves have a been a hit with baby boomers-turned-empty nesters, along with others who don't necessarily need a full-sized loaf, like young singles and the elderly. In fact, Hoffert's seen greater interest in smaller-pack sizes of other products, such as bagged salad greens.
Encouraged by the half-loaves' success since introducing them two years ago, Wheat Montana planned to bring out four-packs of hamburger buns this month, said Ken Peery, sales manager. "We've had a lot of interest," he said. "In Montana, we have a lot of older people. Everybody's looking for something for them."
Nobody likes being reminded that they're getting up in years, especially boomers. Still, as many of those 77.6 million born between 1946 and 1965 see their kids leave home, retailers should heed their evolving food needs.
"Because of the size of the generation, it's going to drive up the number of single- and two-person households fairly dramatically over a pretty short period of time," said Susan Mitchell, senior research analyst, Mintel International Group, Chicago. "So we'll find there's greater demand for products that serve smaller households."
Thus, a family that used to reach for the family pack may now find that a small- or mid-sized box will suffice. With fewer palates to feed and please, boomers are likely to indulge their taste for the exotic by pampering themselves with ethnic and specialty foods, with less regard to price.
Health concerns are another driver. Boomers, now ages 40-58, are more active and health-conscious than their parents. They will likely seek out foods that are organic, better-for-you, or claim added attributes, such as extra calcium or less sodium or fat. "They're going to be looking for benefits," Mitchell said.
Convenience is important, too. Boomers favor home-cooked meals, and as they become empty nesters and work less or retire altogether, they'll have more time to cook. Still, they've grown accustomed to takeout, prepared and semi-prepared packaged foods. Plus, they'll be filling their days with hobbies, travel, entertaining and the like.
Retailers with upscale and fresh formats are likely to be the biggest beneficiaries of this shift in lifestyle. This is especially so for stores in urban areas, as highly educated boomers are likely to move to areas rich in cultural amenities.
"I see more opportunity for people just looking for convenience," said John Mahar, director of operations for single-store Green Hills in Syracuse, N.Y.
Empty nesters seeking easy-to-prepare meals seem to have helped drive purchases of frozen dinners from manufacturers like Weight Watchers, Lean Cuisine and Bertolli, he said. One-time buyers of peanut butter and jelly are trading up to fancier fare, too, he said. "Instead of a family steak, they're buying more strip steak."
Zupan's Markets in Vancouver, Wash., also has noticed boomers' influence at the shelf, said Carl Duyn, director of grocery operations for the six-store group.
"They're looking for the organic and consumer-friendly packaging," he said. "We definitely see a shift into a smaller, convenient size. We do more five-pound packaging of flour than 10-pound packaging. Smaller-size laundry soap is doing better than the larger size."
In its smaller stores, where space is especially scarce, Zupan's is evaluating every category's performance. In some cases, it's pruning large-size packages.
Retailers have been most proactive in fresh foods, though, where they can directly impact the product.
Ukrop's has its long-established "Dinner for Two" takeout menu. United Supermarkets' upscale/fresh format, Market Street, sells prepackaged fresh food in small sizes that are popular with shoppers, likely owing in part to the empty nester phenomenon, said Eddie Owens, marketing director for the Lubbock, Texas-based retailer. "They're taking advantage of our prepared-food service, taking home meals that are for a smaller crowd, for two people, or in some cases, just one," he said.
United is looking at other ways it can serve this population. It conducted focus groups with boomers to help determine the focus of its Living Well Expo fairs, which launched in March. Their reactions to the expos will help shape United's future marketing strategy, Owens said.
In designing its new Sweetbay format in Florida, Delhaize America took into account its customer research showing a rise in empty nesters in the state, said Nicole LeBeau, spokeswoman for Sweetbay. The most visible manifestations are in the perimeter, where people can get cake and pie by the slice, and order as little or as much meat as they want. LeBeau said Sweetbay is looking for ways to accommodate boomer demands in Center Store, too. "We will continue to talk to customers, and find out what they're looking for," she said.
When it comes to the center aisles, though, retailers seem less sure what to do beyond stocking more organic and specialty items they believe are popular with boomers. A common lament is that they're at the mercy of what manufacturers offer them.
"I'd love to see half-loaves of bread," said Albert Lees, owner of one-store Lees Market in Westport, Mass. In his own empty nest, Lees said, "We throw away half a loaf every week."
In grocery, as in the perimeter, supermarkets should think convenience, small package sizes and high quality, industry observers said. Resealable packages of frozen vegetables and individually packaged frozen fish pieces that invite people to use as much or as little as they need fit the empty nest lifestyle, Mintel's Mitchell said.
"There's a lot of opportunity in-store to pump up the lifestyle aspect," she said. With in-store displays, retailers can emphasize the message that "'there's just two of you now, splurge [and] live a little,"' she said.
Offer an array of meal kits that would accommodate boomers' active lifestyles, said Don Montuori, editor of Packaged Facts, a division of Marketresearch.com. Cross merchandise these with prepared foods, too, he said. "The same type of consumer is buying those products."
Many such products are available today, of course, given the demand for foods that are high in quality, organic and easy to prepare spans all age groups. Bertolli's new Dinner For Two premium frozen skillet dinners promise restaurant-quality food in 10 minutes of cooking time for those with a "passion for fine Italian food." Kellogg has said it plans to focus on the aging consumer population by developing brands targeted to aging consumers.
Last November, it launched a marketing campaign called "Cooking for Two." Through Pillsbury .com and a monthly electronic newsletter, General Mills dispenses advice on how to cook, buy and organize meals for a smaller household. Along with shopping the deli and salad bar, Pillsbury encourages empty nesters to keep resealable frozen packages, mini boxes of cereals and a variety of pastas on hand for visiting grandkids and guests, for example.
There's been some product activity, too. General Mills repackaged its Pillsbury dinner rolls and biscuits to allow them to be baked two at a time, with boomers in mind. Recently, it introduced low-fat wheat and low-carb versions of the rolls. Its TV ads promote Progresso soup as a way for boomers to fill up without adding weight.
Pillsbury is working on programs to involve retailers as well, although it wouldn't provide details.
General Mills sees its target audience as people who enjoy cooking, hobbies and spending time with family, but on their own time, said Mark Toth, Pillsbury marketing manager.
"I think the No. 1 thing we've learned is, this is a reconnection phase for them," he said. "They definitely want the convenience, but the product quality's got to be there. They want to enjoy a good meal, something they feel good about. It's about health and moderation."
Toth said the numbers justify Pillsbury's approach. "We're focusing on a consumer, the empty nester, because we know 76 million Americans are entering this stage of their life." At the same time, he said, "I think our messages are contemporary enough to go across different demographics."
Boomers are an important segment, and not just because of their numbers. They're considered the most influential consumers, and that influence extends to food, according to a Food Marketing Institute report. Whether it's by the manufacturer or retailer, targeting a whole generation -- especially one as numerous and diverse as this one -- can be tricky. Not all boomers are empty nesters, and they're at varying stages of employment, for example.
"I don't think there is any such thing as average," pointed out Mahar of Green Hills, which tends to focus on shopper life stage rather than age. "So many people fall in so many different categories."
Zupan's Duyn pointed to the danger of overgeneralizing, even within the same customer. Based on sales patterns in the laundry category, it seems, empty nesters may still buy some items in large sizes, he said.
He also understands the importance of balancing boomers' needs with those of other shopper groups. "Obviously, you want to carry items that are performing, but you also want to offer a choice," he said.