Posted: Sep 25, 2017
The supermarket and grocery business is likely to suffer strong headwinds in the future, due to long-term shifts in consumer behavior. Although many people don’t realize it yet, grocery shopping and cooking are in a long-term decline. They are shifting from a mass category, based on a daily activity, to a niche activity that a few people do only some of the time.
I’ve spent two decades consulting extensively for consumer packaged goods companies. Early in my career I gathered some data for a client on cooking. This research found that consumers fell into one of three groups: (1) people who love to cook, and cook often, (2) people who hate to cook, and avoid that activity by heating up convenience food or outsourcing their meals (by ordering out or dining in restaurants), and, finally, (3) people who like to cook sometimes, and do a mix of cooking and outsourcing, depending on the situation. At the time, the sizes of the three respective groups were about 15% who love to cook, 50% who hate to cook, and 35% who are so-so on the idea.
Nearly 15 years later I did a similar study for a different client. This time, the numbers had shifted: Only 10% of consumers now love to cook, while 45% hate it and 45% are lukewarm about it. That means that the percentage of Americans who really love to cook has dropped by about one-third in a fairly short period of time.
Beyond the numbers, it also suggests that our fondness for Food TV has inspired us to watch more Food TV, and to want to eat more, but hasn’t increased our desire to cook. In part, Food TV has raised our standards to discouragingly high levels: How many of us really feel confident in our cooking skills after watching Iron Chef? (My high school chemistry teacher quit the cello in college after playing a semester next to Yo-Yo Ma.) This may be one reason why consumers now spend more on food in restaurants than on groceries. Despite all the buzz about the growth of pre-prepped meal kits like Blue Apron, or the promise of Whole Foods under Amazon’s management, cooking itself is on a long, slow, steady decline. The top 25 food and beverage companies have lost $18 billion in market share since 2009. Grocers are watching customers make fewer trips to stores, and many chains are in a prolonged price war, with prices declining 1.3% last year.
I’ve come to think of cooking as being similar to sewing. As recently as the early 20th century, many people sewed their own clothing. Today the vast majority of Americans buy clothing made by someone else; the tiny minority who still buy fabric and raw materials do it mainly as a hobby. If that’s the kind of shift coming to the food industry, change leaders and corporate strategists will have their hands full.
The risk to traditional grocers and Big Food is not just market share declines but category obsolescence. To prevent that, the industry needs to stop putting Band-Aids on a major bleed-out, and instead make a decision to amputate through ruthless portfolio strategy. Food manufacturers need to identify categories that are long-term losers, and exit by selling them while they can. Find and exit the categories whose fun-to-chore ratio is weakening, and where a food service proxy has gotten much better at a greater value. Even categories that can hardly be considered “cooking” — such as cold, ready-to-eat cereal — are losing sales as people buy breakfast at Dunkin’ Donuts, Starbucks, or even Taco Bell, where breakfast now accounts for 7% of sales. As more people opt to buy prepared meals, grocers need to reallocate shelf space, and manufacturers will need to exit entire categories.
Another way to survive is to raise the price dramatically by going super-premium or by becoming very focused in local markets. Consider Spam, whose revenues are still growing, even though only 13% of households buy it today. Spam is owned by Hormel, which has outperformed nearly every big food stock, due to a massive portfolio renovation — mostly by moving upscale. It’s acquired Wholly Guacamole, Skippy peanut butter, Muscle Milk, Applegate Farms, and Justin’s nut butters and confection.
A final adaptation should be done through technological innovation, which is how Big Food really got its start. (Frozen food and canning were gigantic industry breakthroughs.) One promising innovation is MATS technology, or microwave assisted thermal sterilization, created at Washington State University. This FDA-approved technology creates multiple benefits. First, it sterilizes food with minimal heat, pressure, and time so that the texture and taste of the food remains restaurant-quality. Second, thanks to the minimal degradation of quality, there is a super-clean label (meaning the product will have few chemical-sounding, unpronounceable ingredients) and an incentive to add high-quality ingredients. Third, the food remains packaged at room temperature, and remains safe to eat for months on end.
That last benefit might be a tough sell to consumers, but it represents a profound breakthrough in shelf life that could have a massive impact on inventory management, distribution, and broader supply chain benefits. (Amazon is intrigued by MATS technology, which in time could have a far bigger impact on the industry than the Whole Foods deal.) Reducing spoilage could reduce food waste. It could also address global hunger: Roughly 1 billion people around the world suffer from food insecurity.
I love the grocery and food business. But the industry must stop trying to live in the past, when most households cooked most meals from scratch.
My advice to grocery leaders is simple: Rediscover your pioneering spirit and missionary DNA. Embrace new science and technology. Rebuild your portfolio, adapt, and advocate for the future. Change the world, just as you did before.
By Eddie Yoon
September 22, 2017
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