Is Food Retail Held Captive by Mental Comfort Food?

June 17th, 2016 Posted by Retail brand building, retail brand relevance, shopper behavior, shopper experience, Uncategorized 0 comments on “Is Food Retail Held Captive by Mental Comfort Food?”

Old beliefs vs. a different future for food retailing.

What’s not to like about the past? We reflect on our understandings on what we think we know based on what’s happened over time – what’s behind us. It feels confident, warm and knowable.

In the food and beverage retail business, we often default to history and past experience as the reliable guide to inform our next steps. And thus looking backwards anchors the present and future.

What if the world around us has changed sufficiently that our old assumptions, axioms, models and behaviors are simply misplaced for what lies ahead? What if the mental comfort food we’ve been feeding on, while filling and delicious, is creating a form of milky mirage that stands in the way of food business transformation?

Let’s consider for a moment that transformation is truly needed and required.

So what is a supermarket?

  • A four walled pantry with a roof.
  • A king-sized curated collection of boxes, cans and bags of things we eat.
  • A form of Formula 1 style shopping cart racetrack we navigate to a finish line with cash registers.
  • A shelf farm showcasing 88,000 choices to be made.
  • A menu fulfillment center organized as a literal maze of cases and aisles.

Historically, the food retail business paradigm is about moving the products in and then out as fast as possible at a reasonable profit – so carts in motion filled to the brim drives the balance sheet happiness we long for.

Thus, we merchandise, and plan-o-gram our way to optimal assortment, priced to fly and keep customers coming back. Rinse and repeat. Our customer insight preferences fall from this picture too: what do they (the walking wallets) buy, how often, and at what price?

Scan, beep, and bag. The retail machinery continues as efficiently as we can make it – and then we continue to turn the same screw even harder.

However, consumer preference has changed – and rapidly – to an experience driven economy where a real premium is placed on a love affair people are having now with elevated food.

Now a much a larger swathe of consumers has discovered that refined cooking skills and better ingredients can transform eating occasions into something truly remarkable. What ifthe consumer’s experience with culinary adventure were to reach a tipping point of “once they’ve seen Paris how do you keep ‘em down on the farm?”

The mental distance from farm-to-table has already collapsed entirely – and consumer expectations around food include images of fields of grain and barley, the cows in pasture, the fruit on the tree – which they now associate directly with what should be in the fridge.

Moreover, food purchases have become a symbolic expression of how people want the world to view them and their lifestyle choices; a form of food as fashion statement.

At Emergent, we refer to this phenomenon as the Dawn of Culinary Culture. It has taken root and changes both expectations and needs with respect to the food purchase experience. To be sure, food is an emotional category.

Can the store and purchase experience, whether brick and mortar or digital, match this emotional connection?

How about a Culinary Food Adventure Showroom?

Imagine what a supermarket might be like if Walt Disney designed it. Disney ‘Imagineers’ would create some form of food magic. Accelerated sensory appeal. The unexpected. Smells, sounds, flavors and adventure. We know that preferences for home cooked meals is accelerating for the very reasons that it feeds our desire for culinary customization, as well as social experiences we enjoy around the table. At the same time, competition for outsourced meals has increased exponentially to include various meal kit options, takeout from every form of foodservice operation and online ordering with quick delivery.

When more advanced culinary skill in the supermarket commissary kitchen is now required, when Deli menus evolve with greater sophistication, when ingredient sourcing is as important as the ingredient, how should the business and balance sheet operate when velocity isn’t the only game?

Food Retail Enlisted as a Shopper’s Inspirational Partner

Food adventure will impact how stores are designed, how food is displayed, how marketing is managed, how business is conducted – who is hired, how they are trained, service levels and in-store experience including the emerging Grocerant trend…

But for all of this to occur, leadership has to embrace the cultural shifts underneath that are pushing the evolution. Relevance to consumer healthy living aspirations is vital and needs to be embedded in how the organization perceives its mission, operations and retail brand positioning. This will require a break from the past. Looking at the business as more about food experience than just transactions – volume and velocity is a different model.

This is more than just improving the Deli prepared meals menu. It springs from passion around culinary experiences and looking for ways to impact how retail food operates. Is there a Chief Culinary Officer on the executive team? There should be.

The real question is how far down the continuum of change can you go to embrace the less known over the known. It won’t be easy. But then nothing worth doing ever came without risk and a bit of uncertainty. While on the other hand, we’re now playing catch up with a consumer who has already moved on culturally.

For those willing to break with the past, this is an opportunity for true differentiation and competitive leverage.

Or we can continue to roll on in the boxes, cans and bags business…

We say take the leap!

Bob Wheatley is the CEO of Chicago-based Emergent Healthy Living. Emergent provides integrated brand strategy, communications and insight solutions to national food, beverage, home and lifestyle companies.  Emergent’s unique and proprietary transformation and growth focus helps organizations navigate, engage and leverage consumers’ desire for higher quality, healthier product or service experiences that mirror their desire for  higher quality lifestyles. For more information, contact [email protected] and follow on Twitter @BobWheatley.

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