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Prepared foods report: New consumer behaviors hone in on fresh, healthy and sustainable

Fresh prepared food (Photo: Flickr user Parker Sav)

Food companies and retailers that market to traditional concepts of mealtime behaviors are missing out on new opportunities emerging from the dynamic changes taking place in American culture (in general) and our eating culture (specifically).

Consumers’ eating isn’t as random as it seems. It is shaped by an emerging system of contexts and beliefs. Shifts in the culture and demographics of the U.S. are impacting the what, when, where, who, and why of consumers’ eating habits.

In the process, consumers are redefining the parameters of meals, snacks and the planning process.

Consumers are eating closer to the time of purchase, meaning that the emblematic “what’s for dinner?” meal question is often now answered by shopping and consuming within an hour or so of purchase.

We are witnessing a blurring of dayparts. Busy lives mean traditional mealtimes are less relevant and social rules about what’s appropriate to eat (and when) are lost. Lunch can be breakfast, breakfast can last all day, or breakfast can be “brinner” (breakfast plus dinner) an example of which is fried chicken and waffles.

These dynamic changes represent opportunities for food retailers as shoppers ever on the outlook for solutions turn to prepared and take-away meals.

The underlying reasons for this focus are diverse, and stem from an evolution in eating culture which includes inclinations to outsource food preparation to both restaurants and retailers on an increasingly frequent basis, complex household schedules and varied food preferences among household members, more frequent snacking and shopping occasions, and shrinking household sizes (typically to one or two persons).

What do shoppers want from retailers’ prepared foods? Freshness.

Our “Diners’ Changing Behaviors: Sustainability, Wellness and Where to Eat 2014” report finds that the ultimate symbol of quality on a foodservice menu is “fresh.” More than half of the respondents (55%) said freshness was an important menu item followed by pesticide free (37%), real (36%) and hormone free (31%).

As characterized by the menus and foodservice programs of brands like Whole Foods and Wegmans and Panera and Chipotle, the rise in importance of fresh and less processed as a halo of not only high quality, but as symbols of both health and sustainability in the minds of consumers has now diffused from the aisles of natural, specialty and grocery stores and in to the dining venues of diverse restaurant formats and foodservice settings.

The quest for new, fresh prepared foods is now diffusing from premium fresh foodservice purveyors and into the realm of conventional supermarkets and restaurant operators.

Consumers are shopping in a diverse range of food stores seeking new experiences and flavors such as local, organic, natural and fresh distinctions. They look for those same experiences when outsourcing their cooking needs. Although traditional dining habits persist (e.g., eating out remains tied to celebration), consumers have outsourced food preparation and now eat out and purchase take away products as a daily habit. When that new behavior is paired with our ongoing cultural fascination with global flavors, diet and health, we see greater demand for menus with fresh, healthy and sustainable options.

Food and beverage occasions are converging to include an interest in sustainable menu options as well as criteria that relate to healthy eating choices and higher food quality. About four in ten (42%) of consumers are receptive to sustainable and healthy possibilities within a wide range of restaurant and foodservice settings.

Our research finds that consumers receptive to sustainability are more frequent diners, eating out an average of 18 occasions a month in 6 different channels, compared to others who eat out 14 occasions a month. Compared to other diners, sustainable-receptive diners are more likely to be millennials, with children, more affluent, urban and ethnically diverse. Sustainable-receptive diners are health-focused and motivated to make what they believe are smarter eating choices, and many recognize the health benefits of making sustainable food choices.

While “fresh” continues to be a most valued quality distinction marker, descriptors such as ‘real’, ‘locally grown’ and ‘seasonal’ are now almost as salient as calorie and fat information. Menu labels that indicate the absence of harmful ingredients (i.e., pesticide or hormone free) are most personally relevant to consumers as they are perceived as quality cues.

A significant portion of shoppers today are receptive to menu concepts that link to health, wellness and sustainability. These consumers are more likely to be interested in a host of food-forward concepts including healthier menus, smaller portions, alternative proteins and local, fresh or responsibly sourced ingredients. As consumers are becoming more aware of the link between diet and health, many are actively managing their diet and dining habits.

For more information about the report: Diners’ Changing Behaviors

As CEO, Laurie Demeritt provides strategic and operational leadership for The Hartman Group’s research and consulting teams. The Hartman Group is recognized for its ability to blend qualitative, quantitative and trends research to help clients develop  marketing strategies. For more information about The Hartman Group, visit http://www.hartman-group.com/or contact Blaine Becker, senior director of marketing at: blaine@hartman-group.com

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