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Our Standby Mealtime Companion

Imagine for a moment one of any traditional mealtime settings—breakfast, lunch or evening dinner. A usual accompaniment at these eating occasions was often the daily newspaper, a favored magazine, perhaps a television program playing in the background or other family members of the household. While these images from a time in our not-too-distant past may seem a bit Rockwellian, today’s vignettes of consumers sitting with electronics using social media during mealtimes would suggest a radical shift in American food culture. We may sound like a broken record to the many loyal followers of this newsletter when we say that consumers are constantly changing the way they live, shop and consume, but food culture is on the move once again as consumers find new, inventive ways to use social technology, tools, sites and apps as an integral part of eating occasions.

Today, social technology has displaced the newspaper, magazine, TV and people as a preferred mealtime companion. When you consider that 45% of all adult eating occasions are alone and 39% of consumers engage in social media while eating, you get a sense of the marketing potential for engaging consumers at mealtime.

It makes sense that with all this eating alone we’d need someone to keep us company—no matter if they’re in the next room or 2,000 miles away. But magically enough with all these smart phones, laptops and related social media tools and apps, when we eat alone, we can still be together. In fact, social media and eating go hand-in-hand, as we increasingly eat meals alone. Even as we eat alone, mealtimes continue to be a break from work and responsibilities—and a time to be sociable on social media.

Consumers virtually break bread by sharing their food experiences through uploading photos and posting stories. When asked what ways they’ve used online or Internet-based tools and devices in the past 30 days while eating a meal or snack, 36% of consumers told us that they texted with a friend or family member. When asked why they were using social networking sites or apps in a variety of settings while eating, 44% of consumers said it was to stay in touch with friends and family, while 35% said “to relieve boredom”—in other words, just as we’ve hinted, eating alone can be a little boring.

Consider the following comments from consumers interviewed in our recent Clicks to Cravings social media study:

“We eat in the living room and watch TV, text and use computers all at the same time.”
“There’s no dining table….We all eat on the couch with the TV, tablets, phones. We hang out all the time so it’s not like we have to talk and eat.”
“I’ll go to the food blogs nights I’m alone. They give me hope, when I’m eating my spaghetti sauce from a jar.”

The times are a-changing indeed! No longer is dinner a face-to-face social occasion with all parties seated at the table: Eating dinner often takes place alone and involves taking a break to eat while simultaneously checking in with friends or family who could be close by or far away. If anything, being in a social media conversation while eating now feels so normal that we often interact virtually even when we are physically eating with others. So, overall, social media is becoming our standby mealtime companion: Figure 1 showcases the fact that while 55% of social media users say they used social media during lunch, a surprising number of consumers are using social media while eating early in the day before breakfast and late at night.


Figure 1: Use of Social Networking Sites or Apps by Those Who Use Social Media While Eating

Source: Clicks & Craving: The Impact of Social Technology on Food Culture report, The Hartman Group, Inc. and MSLGroup Americas, 2012

Figure 1: Among social media users, when asked when they had used social media tools or apps in the past seven days, lunchtime was by far the most common time of day to do so, although a surprising number of consumers are using social media while eating early in the day before breakfast and late at night.


Key Takeaway

Eating occasions are now social media occasions. As our standby meal companion, whether eating alone or with family or friends, anyone connected with the food industry should take note that social media is changing food culture by changing the way consumers discover, learn, share and experience food. With the clicks of their fingers, social technology changes how we plan, buy, cook and eat food. Social technology is a tool for you create a personable relationship with your consumers.


Culture Technology/Social Media


As leaders in the study of American food culture, The Hartman Group has been tracking how Americans shop for food since the 1990s. From one-stop shopping to multichannel shopping to online markets and click-and-collect, we continue to track consumers’ evolving perceptions, needs, habits and relationships with food retailers. New to the 2017 report is a special section on the expansion of the discount grocery channel, the emerging fresh-format channel and smaller-footprint retail formats.


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