Four voices on the future of food shopping

by Bill Bishop

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Fortune CookiesWhat key drivers will reshape food shopping in coming years? When we asked the experts on BMC’s Food Segment team, we got four thought-provoking responses:

  • Larry Kaagan says that science is changing our understanding of food.
  • Martha Roberts is thinking about the impact of social trends.
  • Krysten Hommel imagines creating feedback loops that use shoppers’ own data to add value.
  • Jeff Dlott describes how his feedback loop is changing his shopping patterns.

All belong to Food Foresight’s Blue Ribbon Panel, an organization that develops trends intelligence for the food and agriculture industries. Here, we weave together some of the common themes repeated across their responses to give you peek around the corner at what’s coming.

More information, please!

Science and economics are changing how we think about food, and creating an important new driver: increased shopper requirements for information about food products.

“We appear to be on the cusp of some scientific breakthroughs by which the former guidance to ‘eat a variety of fruits and vegetables’ will be eclipsed by far more focused details about the health-promoting and disease preventing features of specific fruits and vegetables,” says Larry Kaagan. “Who or what will be the trusted interpreter of these new breakthroughs to a nonscientific, but intensely interested shopping public?” he asks.

Competing messages are likely, with the nutritional “winners” trumpeting scientifically proven features, while others move to defend their products from the challenge by healthier alternatives.

Martha Roberts points out that two very different definitions of food are evolving due to economic pressures.

“A larger and larger percentage of our U.S. population continues in survival mode . . . .” Roberts says. “These families focus on affordability, accessibility at a reasonable price point, and they necessarily focus more on putting calories on the table than on the connection between food and health.” In contrast, another part of the population is defining food as essential to a healthy, enjoyable lifestyle and assigning it a different kind of value.

These two definitions will drive clearer market segmentation, and the segments will be looking for different kinds of information.

Social trends will affect shopping patterns

These experts point to three social trends that will affect food purchasing patterns: social networks, an aging population, and the growing number of single-person households.

The growth in the size and diversity of social networks is creating new options for getting information and exposing people to new “sources of authority” that inevitably influence their shopping. The internet eliminates distance as a barrier, reduces cost, and introduces otherwise unavailable people to an individual’s network.

An aging population will lead the way in looking at food as a way to maintain both the quality of life and health. Their more intentional use will result in food having greater value in some circumstances, and will encourage a more direct connection between health and access to healthy food.

The growing number of single-person households is a somewhat narrower trend, but one with significant implications for food, particularly among those ages 25 – 64. At minimum, this will impact the number of meals taken at home, the need for prepared meals, and smaller shopping baskets.

Responding to new needs

The team identified three ways to respond more effectively to shoppers in this emerging environment.

1. Provide increased access to information.

There’s an explosion of new information related to specific food products, but how will shoppers access it? “Front-of-package” nutrition labels and shelf label nutrition programs are good steps, but shoppers will want even more information, and even easier access. Providing information online, so that it’s available whenever and wherever shoppers need it, will be critical.

2. Build trust.

The erosion of trust in many traditional institutions is a major undercurrent in discussions among food experts. Shoppers are looking for a source they can trust to help them make important decisions. There is opportunity here for companies to begin to “fill the gap” by concentrating on trust-building activities such as increased transparency and open dialog with shoppers on problems and issues of concern.

3. Harness feedback loops.

Kristen Hommel sees ways that retailers can “add meaningful – and non-price-centered – value to the shopping experience by creating feedback loops.” Feedback loops that draw shoppers into active relationship with information about their own behavior, enabling them to monitor or change it, are increasingly seen as a boon. “Today’s consumer is likely to believe ‘it’s my data – put it to work for me,’ ” she says. Jeff Dlott’s response is a perfect example of exactly how this works. Using a personal feedback device called FitBit has him counting steps and benchmarking them against his peers – and changing his shopping behavior. “My desire to increase my activity, is increasingly trumping my preferences for certain stores and products,” he says.There’s an opportunity to deploy feedback loops with shoppers at virtually every touchpoint, and to use them to more effectively keep up with changing shopper needs.

Looking ahead

Can food retailers maintain the "trusted source" position? What should retailers and suppliers do to respond to these changes now?

Many thanks to the BMC Food Segment team for giving us their thoughts for this forecast. None of us can know the future with certainty, but when you take a moment to connect the dots, as we did above, you get a chance to see the ripples before they become waves and to align your strategies and resources accordingly. Here’s to preparing for the future of shopping now.


  • Dr. Jeff Dlott is president of SureHarvest, a California company providing sustainability software tools and professional services to growers, wineries, trade associations, and food companies.
  • Krysten Hommel is a BMC Black Belt and owner of two tons per acre, a consulting practice focused on strategic and creative marketing and communications for clients in the agriculture and food & beverage industries.
  • Larry Kaagan is a sociologist and social trends analyst, and president of Kaagan Research Associates.
  • Martha Roberts is Director of Industry Relations at the Institute of Food and Agriculture Sciences at the University of Florida.
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Corny Gallagher said:
Way to go team.
Bill Bishop said:
Looks like our experts are on trend regarding the use of “self-tracking” as a way for shoppers to create feedback loops that improve “the quality if their lives”. An article on “Counting Every Minute” in the March 3, 2012 issue of The Economist, calls out self-tracking or what they call self-quantifying.

This may not be the newest of ideas, but technology now makes it practical to capture a lot of personal data on everything from calories burned to the quality of sleep. This is paving the way for healthcare based on monitoring for prevention. It will only become more important as the population ages, healthcare costs continue to increase, and patients become more involved in their own wellness. Think Health 2.0.
John Nichols said:
These insights are a very good way to leverage information from many sources, including the Food Foresight discussions. Good job!

John Nichols
Kim Kirchherr, MS, RD, LDN, CDE said:
As a Registered Dietitian with outpatient dietitian experience now working in a supermarket setting, this was a great read. Nothing motivates people more than facing a new diagnosis in terms of food choice, like having a heart attack or getting diagnosed with diabetes. As is mentioned, our aging population is quite interested in learning more about their food and the impact of their choices on health, and are asking more questions about the ingredients in things. On the flip side, keeping it light, "do-able", and fun is important for those who are healthy and/or not yet thinking of the ramifications of their choices, which is why the simplicity of is also a critical piece of this discussion. There are too many nutrients for the layperson to have full health literacy of all - but if we "package" the message right and make it easy to do something about - like filling the plate half full with fruits and vegetables (from MyPlate link above), this is a message that is non-threatening, actionable, AND has the benefit of providing the nutrients needed for support of health, too - and can be made more intricate for the right audience. To the point in the article about budget - if the message gets too tricky right now, we could lose the people we want to get on the right path before they "have" to monitor their intake for health reasons. Managing both audiences can be done - and I find it a fun challenge to navigate this process.
BlackBeltMike Spindler said:
I think your panel has grasped the head of a solid, and growing fragment of the market.

While there may be a divide between those faced with calories/cents and those trying to embrace different habits to enhance lifestyle and health...that divide may be artificial. It seems that a "Mediterranean" type diet consisting largely of fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and the like can be pretty economical, particularly with the prices of meats and diary these days.

At the same time it is very difficult to sort out the truth about healthy eating. Books like EatRight America and The China Study tell us in no uncertain terms that dairy and meat are direct contributors to the most common and deadly of diseases. Yet the government and a number of the disease advisory associations extol the healthful virtues of those food groups.

As Churchill quipped "There are a terrible lot of lies going about the world, and the worst of it is that half of them are true."

Nice work here Bill and Team

BlackBeltDan Seliger said:
Great topic! Thanks to Bill and the esteemed panel.

The information gap is a big problem for retailers, particularly in the health and nutrition area which requires more than a superficial communication to be perceived as useful.

While ranking systems like 'Guiding Stars' are a good first step, the digital alternatives to these print efforts are growing rapidly, and are likely to be quite disruptive for retailers, even more so for manufacturers.

One example is an app called Fooducate. It provides product nutritional information, including info that "manufacturers hope you won't notice." That's where the disruption comes in… Fooducate highlights the "fine print", warning consumers of the use of controversial ingredients, excessive amounts of things like sugar or salt, confusing serving sizes, and fuzzy blanket claims and certifications. It also provides alternative recommendations - one of the interesting marketing opportunities the app could enable.

What consumers like about tools such as Fooducate is that they address the need for useful, detailed information that can meaningfully guide the decision making process, and reinforce for consumers that they are in control. It will be interesting to see how manufacturers and retailers maintain their "trusted source" position in a new landscape where third-party apps can better satisfy consumers information needs.
BlackBeltFaye Sinnott said:
Building trust is a huge opportunity. Customers have so many options, not only with food, but any purchase decision. Customers want to reduce their complexity, and one of the ways is for customers to look for trusting, valued relationships.... that they don't need to worry there is something deleterious in the food, or packaging, or service delivery process. If companies can gain and keep the customer's trust, they are often willing to pay more for that, because it simplifies their lives. Dan is absolutely right on the disruption potential of a resource like Fooducate. Any unfavorable information throws the trust relationship in doubt, which creates the opportunity for new players to take over the role of trusted supplier.
supermarket sales and merchandising said:
The reasons included in this post are quite convincing and true. These are few reasons which can affect a healthy relation and make it broken. I want to pay my sincere regards to author for this research.
Nancy Childs said:
Point #2, Trust, is about to be the buzz word of the year - release of books like Salt Sugar Fat and Pandora's Lunchbox , and their accompaning media attention will challenge the consumer's trust in traditional brands and manufacturers. This creates a window for retailer trust to supercede in consumers' minds. And retailer store brands, as well, if they portray a simpler and shorter ingredient list - as shared via information. And the retailer's information platform is ready via their social and on-line communication venues. Avenues to promote the know-how and the sourcing for the less processed meals consumers are seeking. Learning to cook could take a major step into the grocery produce and meat aisles.

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