Understanding the new food consumer


People’s relationships with food changed this year. The good news? Customers are up for grabs—and our proprietary consumer research backs it up. Businesses that want to win need to start by understanding customer motivations.

For many of us, the global pandemic has reset our relationship with food. We’ve shifted the way we shop for, purchase, prepare—and even think about—food. Much of this evolved out of necessity: grocery delivery services grew (and got maxed out) because many felt unsafe going into stores; online meat and fish sites flourished; and local butcher shops resurfaced as supermarket chains had trouble keeping meat on the shelves. People who had not been cooking at home learned to cook with YouTube videos and online tutorials, and meal kits surged as restaurants remained closed (even for takeout).

Things have settled down over the last few months: supply chain issues have been solved, in most places restaurants have reopened with new safety precautions (although in some regions they are closing again), and grocery delivery services are operating at a normal pace. But the food landscape has changed and it is not going back to where it had been. The Jackman Human Insights Study, our ongoing, proprietary consumer research study, found that not only are we cooking more (51% of respondents say they’re making more meals from scratch), but most of us (91%) plan to keep up this increased level of home cooking for the foreseeable future.

The old model of competition for foodservices businesses was based on price, place, product, and promotion. But this is not enough to win anymore. To succeed today, businesses need to understand their customers on a deeper level and remember that while some see food merely as nourishment or fuel, for many it is so much more. Historically, in addition to nourishment, food has been considered a form of self-care, indulgence, and a way to connect with others. While that is still the case, during this pandemic food also became a way to experiment, discover, and embrace self-sufficiency for many who had not thought this way before.

Those in the food industry need to identify who their consumer is and what drives them.

Below, we focus on two different groupings of prevalent consumer segments identified in our research — The Planner and The Budget Conscious, and The Adventurer and The Trend Seeker. Here's how to engage them:

The Planner and The Budget Conscious

Motivated by fuel and convenience.

The Planner seeks routine, structure, and familiarity, especially now as the world seems to be changing at a rapid pace. These shoppers stick to the rules and make thoughtful and controlled decisions. While they prefer to watch and learn from others, they would rather not pay for services if they can do it themselves. As their name suggests, The Budget Conscious tend to prioritize price. They prefer to do things they are familiar with and much like The Planner, they watch and learn from others. Budget conscious consumers also prefer to get their shopping done in one stop.

Three keys to engaging these consumers: 

1. Keep it Simple

These shoppers prefer to stick with simple, quick, and even pre-measured meals and are not paying all that much attention to the details of where or how a product is made. They are not looking for organic vegetables or ingredients they can’t pronounce, they just want a grocery store with conventional produce and good premade meals. Going back to the basics can work with this crowd.

2. Focus on Brick and Mortar

The Planner and The Budget Conscious are highly unlikely to subscribe to a meal-kit service or order groceries online. Businesses looking to engage these consumers should put effort into the in-store experience to help create loyal repeat customers.

3. Emphasize Convenience

Shoppers in these segments tend not to see food as a way to bring people together and are not particularly invested in the food journey. For them, food is simply nourishment. Before the pandemic forced the city into lockdown, Amazon Go worked to engage these consumers in San Francisco with a stand-alone store filled with ready-to-eat foods (like burritos, salads, and sushi).

The Adventurer and The Trend Seeker

Motivated by connection, creativity, and discovery.

Shoppers in both of these segments enjoy discovering and trying new things. The Trend Seeker shops at speciality retailers. They are most likely to accomplish something as part of a big group but are also very willing to pay someone to do tasks for them. In contrast, The Adventurer is likely to be a risk taker who would rather try doing something themselves than learn it from others. They, too, prefer specialty stores and when shopping, and they prioritize quality over price and convenience.

Three keys to engaging these consumers: 

1. Take a Multi-faceted Approach

These customers are engaged with all aspects of the food journey, which means they are interested in cooking and open to new ways of accessing food. Businesses need to engage these consumers in all possible ways—like Panera Bread did in the early days of the pandemic. When physical cafes started to close, Panera launched curbside ordering and pickup in just two weeks. And, when it became clear that customers were having trouble finding ingredients to cook at home, the company rapidly launched a grocery delivery service.

2. Focus on Innovation

These are the consumers that have been most excited to experiment with new food during the pandemic and continue to get creative with their meals. Find ways to engage them such as meal kits that rotate by cuisine or a section of the grocery store dedicated to a different cuisine each week offering prepared meals, as well as ingredients and recipes, to make it at home.

3. Enhance Complexity and Creativity

The Adventurer and The Trend Seeker like experimentation and are willing to prepare complex meals. They would appreciate learning to make craft cocktails online or picking up a kit with all needed ingredients and then hopping on Zoom for a virtual cooking session with local or international chefs. They also want to engage with local businesses—like small butcher shops or restaurants—so partnerships are important.

While it is true that consumers’ relationships with food have changed rapidly this year, we at Jackman view this as an opportunity. In our study, 41% of consumers said they are still experimenting with new brands or types of food. That’s great news—and means that new customers are up for grabs. Businesses that want to win these new customers and develop long-term loyalty need to start by understanding these consumers' motivations for engagement with food and then finding innovative, ongoing ways to fulfill those needs.

Stefan Read is VP of engagements at Jackman Reinvents. An advisor to consumer brands, retailers, B2B companies, and private equity partners for more than thirty years, Jackman has proven invaluable to leaders intent on sharpening strategy and orchestrating insight-led reinventions of their businesses.

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