Everything is On-the-Go

Ever-changing consumer shopping patterns under the microscope at FARE

Published in CSP Daily News

By  Abbey Lewis, Executive Editor

SCHAUMBURG, Ill. -- If there's one thing that most foodservice experts can agree on, it's that the shopping behaviors of consumers are in constant flux. How you as a foodservice operator dissect and use those trends to your advantage can help determine not only menu, but also pricing, serving size and marketing strategy. At the "Trend Translations: How do changes in shopping behaviors impact various channels of on-the-go food?" opening session at CSP's 2009 Foodservice at Retail Expo (FARE), the panel of three experts encouraged attendees to focus on quality, value and a heightened [image-nocss] sense of brand.

Ron Paul, president and CEO of Chicago-based Technomic Inc., advised attendees to pay attention to consumer loyalties in the down economy: "The most important thing to recognize is that you're dealing with a customer base that is less loyal and more willing to shop around. [They're thinking], 'if you don't take care of us, someone else will'," he said.

With Technomic data showing that nearly 75% of foodservice consumers feel "pinched" or more strapped for cash than ever before, it is imperative, Paul said, to push value and offer more comfortable meal items. "For [upscale restaurants], we're seeing not only double digit declines, we're seeing declines upwards of 20%. In my experience, I've never seen this before," he said.

Panelist Michele Schmal, vice president, CREST Product Management, The NPD Group, Port Washington, N.Y., noted a rise in food retailers that now provide ready-made, or on-the-go food items. She said the challenge for these locations is to offer food with flavor comparable to a QSR. Where food-retailer locations succeed is offering a perceived healthiness, but that taste is somewhat lacking. Also lacking: identity.

"Where there is a bigger gap is in special taste or craving. [QSRs] have developed branding on those foods that are 'cravable.' You don't see that happening with food retailers," she said. To which, moderator Ira Blumenthal, president, CO-OPPORTUNITIES Inc., Acworth, Ga., remarked, it's true, "Great brands stand for something...Figure out how to develop a product or service that stands for something."

Schmal also said initial speculation that "feeding the family" would become more and more important in the on-the-go-food sphere proved false: "That's really not what we see when we examine the consumer experience behind it." Rather, she said, snacking is the biggest piece.

The third panelist, Michelle Barry, Ph.D. senior vice president with the Hartman Group, Bellevue, Wash., said "Changes in shopping behavior are most often due to food culture changes." The most current cultural shift has a keen focus on quality as well as indulgence, she said.

"Quality is by far the biggest food trend of the decade," she said, adding that retailers should strive, not to be a "jack of all trades," rather, they should try to do one thing really well. She cited examples such as the Skillet truck in Seattle and Kogi Taco truck in Los Angeles as examples of a new era in foodservice.

"It starts to challenge what can't be foodservice, what can't be on-the-go," she said. "Everything now can be considered on-the-go."

[Pictured: Ira Blumenthal; (back, left to right): Michele Schmal, Michelle Barry, Ron Paul.]