Food Forum: Offering choice

While consumers are concerned about their health, they don’t want to sacrifice variety, taste or convenience. How can retailers capitalize on this trend?

By Levon Kurkjian

We have all read about consu­mers be­coming increasingly savvy about man­aging their own well-being and making more informed food and beverage purchases. This phenomenon, driven primarily by the explosive growth of readily available information, is now materializing in some very specific product and merchandising demands that retailers should consider addressing.

As an example, in the fresh soup category, which is served both hot and refrigerated, industry observers have noticed an increased consumer demand for four specific product attributes: all natural, allergen free, balanced nutrition and accommodating of various lifestyles. There has also been a significant increase in consumer demand for transparency of as much information as possible on packaging and point-of-sale merchandising materials.

Natural or all natural as a descriptor of fresh soups unfortunately does not have a universally accepted and enforced standard definition. As such, many more products make this claim than should and consumers are quickly catching on. Consumers, weary of natural claims from manufacturers and retailers, have shifted their focus to scanning labels for unrecognizable and/or artificial ingredients.

What consumers really want are products made with real food ingredients and nothing artificial or unnecessary. Whether this shift is due to an increase in awareness or an evolution in our immune and digestive systems, there is no doubt that the demand for allergen-free food is skyrocketing. Gluten is one of the rapidly growing allergens that consumers are forced to, or choosing to avoid. For many years, great-tasting soups, especially the more traditional varieties, were unavailable to gluten- free consumers due to the thickeners, bases and, in some cases, noodles used by most manufacturers. As the needs of these consumers are being met in many other categories, they realize that they should expect fresh soups to be cooked without gluten and without any compromise in taste.

With all the press and White House’s focus on our nation’s growing obesity problem, it’s difficult to believe that there is actually a large percentage of our population embracing a balanced lifestyle and balanced nutrition. However, the industry has seen meaningful growth in consumers who believe in moderation and balance. They focus on consuming foods that have “reasonable” nutritional values without sacrificing taste. This growing group of consumers understands that they can enjoy a great- tasting bowl of soup with 600 mg of sodium and still live a very healthy lifestyle. They realize that they don’t need to force themselves to eat soups with 120 mg of sodium or less to stay healthy. These consumers approach their diets holistically and industry executives believe many more will follow.

The final category of growing consumer demands for variety is a specific demand to accommodate various lifestyle requirements or preferences. A few of examples of the groups that require attention include organic and vegan consumers. Whether by choice or by religious or spiritual beliefs, many consumers are looking for very specific types of characteristics in the products they purchase and retailers must be ready to meet these needs. Veganism and vegetarianism have been growing steadily for many years and with that growth the quality and taste of products as well as the breadth of variety available also needs to grow. The growth of the demand for organic foods is very uncertain with many mixed messages. What is certain is that in absolute terms, a meaningful segment of consumers still want and trust organic products.

In summary, more than in any other point in the modern retail era, it is critical for retailers to offer a range of products that cater to the most relevant consumer demands without any degradation in taste or quality. Further, it is important for retailers to make the purchasing decisions easier for their shoppers by being transparent and sharing as much information as possible. This can be done with call outs on packaging, with educational materials at the point-of-sale and/or with consultative services with staff dieticians. All in all, our experience suggests that addressing consumer demand for variety efficiently and effectively can help retailers drive purchases and help keep consumers committed to their stores. 

Levon Kurkjian is vice president of marketing for Chelsea, Mass.-based Kettle Cuisine.

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