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Food business strategy: moving from what, to when and how.

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Think less about WHAT foods consumers want, and focus instead on WHEN and HOW they want them.

This article originally appeared in SIAL America.

When it comes to food and beverage shopping, fortunes are spent annually by brands and retailers of all sizes to understand how consumers make buying decisions. And, while much is made of WHAT they consume, most researchers overlook the crucial aspect of how shopping method dramatically impacts the WHY of what retailers and brands they choose.

Key takeaways:

  • How a person acquires food is just as influential on decision-making as the characteristics of the food itself.

  • Most teams are looking at omni-channel as a practical consideration in their planning, vs. an opportunity to build strategic advantage.

  • The decision-making criteria a consumer uses are dictated by the context in which they’re considering a food or beverage choice.

The darling buzzword “omni-channel” abounds in research and strategy briefs. But while most teams would agree that shopper / guest understanding is crucial to gain insight into where and how consumers are acquiring things, most overlook that this can be the key to understanding the WHY of real-life decision making.

I have a colleague who, like all of us, is busy. Months back she was lamenting the hassle of having to grocery shop for the household. I asked if she had tried click-and-collect, or delivery. Her response: “No, but I’m definitely going to do that. I don’t know why I haven’t yet. That’s so obvious.”

Cut to a couple of weeks later:

Me: “Did you try grocery delivery or ordering ahead?”

Her: “No…”

Me: “I thought that was the answer to your struggle?”

Her: “It is; I’m doing it next time.”

A couple weeks after that:

(Same scenario: hadn’t made the behavior change)

Her: “I don’t know why! I’m just going to keep going to the d@&% store, OK?!?”

This seems like irrational behavior – eComm would solve the struggle she’s experiencing, right? But this is so typical of how our coveted consumers behave in real life (most of us researchers call this the “say / do gap”). And it lays bare the importance of understanding not only what they buy, and how they buy it, but WHY they get things in the ways they do.

Our database reveals three macro shopper mindsets when it comes to food in general:

  1. Bricks Bound – this is my friend; loyal to brick-and-mortar. This represents 48% of shoppers in the U.S.

  2. eComm Enthusiasts – these shoppers really like getting food via eComm means. While they certainly still shop at times via brick-and-mortar, they prefer digital. This is 20% of shoppers.

  3. Fence Sitters – these shoppers are… on the fence. This is 32% of U.S. shoppers, and they could be persuaded to either means of shopping.

This gets to my point about the key to understanding context, in order to diagnose the WHY of consumer behavior.

Bricks Bound shop in this way because it gives them CONTROL over the experience (no substitutions, delays, other people choosing their bananas). This is why my friend never made the switch: while she thought time and effort were her struggle, it was actually about control over the process.

eComm Enthusiasts shop in this way because it empowers them to discover and explore (NOT because it saves money or merely reduces effort). Ordinary price shopping is not going to trigger real-world behavior. New experiences and discoveries are.

In short, the context in the minds of consumers – not merely the where and how of shopping – defines the decision-making criteria. As you plan your food and beverage business strategy and activation, be to check assumptions at the door, and dig deeply into not just the behavior, but the fuel behind it. And ‘food-getting’ context is a major factor overlooked in most marketing organizations…


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