December, 2005

Research Perspective and Comments & Analysis

Take-Home Trends

From the time their feet hit the floor in the morning until they crawl into bed at night, today’s consumers are on the move. Mom and Dad are overworked, the kids are overscheduled, and the clock always seems to outrun us.

This has led to continuing change in the food purchasing habits of our nation’s population as we all adapt to an ever-busier way of life that requires flexibility in meal planning and scheduling. According to The Food Institute’s Food Industry Review, foodservice purchases now account for 47 percent of the average consumer’s food dollar.

It’s no wonder, then, that time-starved consumers often make the easiest and fastest choice, rather than the most healthful, when it comes to eating out or selecting convenience foods. And those decisions are reflected in the alarming obesity crisis, particularly among our children.

It seems it is not just foodservice that is paying attention to new take-home trends. Although home meal replacement isn’t a new concept for supermarkets, it is relatively new that they are offering significantly more options for grab-and-go meals. And the numbers tell us that consumers are responding with increased purchases.

According to recent research with 1,000 consumers around the country conducted on behalf of the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) by Opinion Dynamics Corporation, almost a third of consumers (30 percent) say they are purchasing more ready-to-eat meals or foods from their supermarkets that they traditionally would have purchased from restaurants, either as “dine in” or “take home.” The heaviest purchasers of these items are females within the age brackets of 30-45 and 65+, have an annual income of $75,000 or more and are college graduates and married. Geographically, these consumer buying patterns are strongest in the South and Midwest.

Of the 53 percent who purchased ready-to-eat meals from supermarkets over the past year rather than dining in a restaurant, 27 percent say they are doing so a few times a week, 20 percent say weekly and 12 percent say daily. Using 2000 U.S. Census data, we estimate that 7.7 million households are buying ready-to-eat meals from their supermarkets every day.

Across the board, consumers believe that supermarket ready-to-eat meals and food provide just slightly more fruits and vegetables than do take-out or dine-in options from restaurants. Nevertheless, most consumers state that among these options (supermarket, dine-in and take-home), less than 10 percent of these meals consist of fruits and vegetables.

Consumers consistently say they want more fresh fruit and vegetable options. And while fresh-cut is helping meet this consumer demand, there is much more that we, as an industry, can and should do.

Today’s busy lifestyles and public attention to the health benefits of better eating habits encourage the consumption of fresh produce and create an opportunity that both foodservice and retailers should take special note of and act accordingly.

Our research shows that supermarkets’ share of the ready-to-eat meals/foods category has grown substantially. Restaurants, however, still control the majority of the market.

These findings should lead supermarkets to increase their fresh produce options for take-home meals. Additionally, supermarkets can choose to discover ways that help consumers quickly grasp how easily fresh fruits and vegetables fit into a fast-paced lifestyle. Taste samplings, recipes, preparation tips and taking a fresh look at how we present produce are just some ideas for creating a sensory experience that will energize and inspire the most harried of shoppers.

Restaurants also have a cornucopia of opportunities to provide diners with what they crave while also lowering plate cost. From appetizers to desserts, restaurants have unlimited possibilities to provide flavorful and beautiful fruits and vegetables as choices across their menu spectrum.

Consumers say they want more fresh produce options for their meals. We must ask ourselves why we aren’t expanding our menus when, clearly, there is room on the plate.

Consumer Confusion

The good news for Bryan Silbermann is that his research report this month reminds me of Ernest Hemingway. The bad news for the produce industry is that the specific line it reminds me of is the final one in The Sun Also Rises: “Isn’t it pretty to think so.”

The most important claim regarding the produce industry and its future growth is: “Consumers say they want more fresh produce options for their meals.” This is doubtless correct, but the key word is “say.”

It may be possible to do survey research on a matter of taste and get a valid response: “Which flavor ice cream do you prefer: chocolate or vanilla?” In research, however, there is something known as the “social desirability bias” in which people gild the lily to make themselves look better. To put it in non-scientific language, respondents lie.

On a matter such as produce consumption, which has been widely communicated as a healthful option, the social desirability bias is very high. People know the “right answer,” and the desire to look good controls the response. Only a person who is ignorant or who doesn’t mind being perceived as being ignorant would answer a survey by saying something like, “No, I would like to see less healthful stuff like fresh fruits and vegetables in my meals and more artery-clogging saturated fats.”

The real question is what do people actually do, and here the capitalist system is pretty darn efficient. The reason all those rotisseries are roasting chicken and not eggplants is because that is what sells.

Now it may still be a good idea to offer more options that contain fruits and vegetables, but that is not the same as thinking that all we need is more produce options and consumers will buy a lot more produce, eat more produce or that consumers will be healthier.

The whole issue of take-out, grab-n-go, home meal replacement and ready-to-eat is clouded by ambiguity in the research. It is not even clear what these words mean to consumers. It is one reason a lot more money needs to be invested in qualitative research to ascertain consumer definitions and perceptions in this area.

A great example of the limitations of survey research is the response to the question, “What percentage of the following meals is made up of fruits or vegetables?” which analyzes what consumers report about the fruit and vegetable content of various meals: Ready-to-eat Supermarket Meals, Take-home Restaurant Meals and Dine-in Restaurant Meals. First of all, what in the world is a “ready-to-eat supermarket meal?” If I buy a rotisserie chicken in the deli, did I buy a meal? Or to make it a meal, do I have to buy a salad, a starch, a vegetable, a beverage, etc.? If I pick up one of Ready Pac’s Bistro salads, is that one? What if I just buy a bag of fresh-cut salad, a baguette from the bakery and a bottle of water and sit in a park and eat my lunch? How about a frozen TV dinner?

These terms are so vague that it is difficult to ascertain the actual meaning of what consumers report. In addition, it is not clear if the question is asking consumers to evaluate meal categories that they never purchase or asking them to report on their actual experience with these meals. If consumers are talking about things they haven’t bought, we have real reason to doubt the accuracy of their perceptions, and if they are reporting on things they have actually experienced, then the results are skewed by the patterns of their own lives. For example, a person who eats a home-cooked breakfast and dinner every day but buys a salad from a supermarket for lunch might report that ready-to-eat supermarket meals are composed heavily of fruits and vegetables.

Although PMA should be commended for its investment in survey research, this study presents a perfect example of the need for more varied research. It is very interesting to survey consumer perceptions regarding produce content of meals. Then we as an industry should follow up by actually going out and buying meals on a nationally representative basis, doing an analysis of each meal and determining the actual proportions. Then we could contrast consumer perception with reality.

My anecdotal take is that true supermarket meals — those from supermarkets that offer true meal programs with entrées, sides, etc. — do generally offer a higher percentage of produce, but not necessarily more produce in ounces. Restaurants are used to dressing up the plate, so they tend to fill it up with less expensive starches, which reduce the percentage of everything else, but not the actual volume of protein or produce served.

Finally, we come back to where we started, the contention that consumers want more produce options. Much marketing research has shown that consumers want options. Max Brunk, for years an esteemed professor at Cornell and a founding columnist of Produce Business, did extensive research showing that to increase the sales of bulk apples, one should also offer bags; to increase the sales of roses, offer varieties of flowers, and on and on with different products. So PMA is safe in urging foodservice operations, whether parts of supermarkets or restaurants, to offer more produce options. Still, there is something vaguely unsettling about basing an appeal on such thin gruel. There is much research — and much thinking — to be done.