Boomers’ heightened interest in living healthier lifestyles is evident in the close attention they pay to food choices and food shopping experiences. In this installment of our Consumer Confidential series on the behind-the-shopping-cart view of retail experiences across America, we share the notes of Sandy, a Baby Boomer, on her shopping excursions in Atlanta-area stores including her two favorite stores, Publix and The Fresh Market. She also reflects on her reluctance to shop the local Kroger stores.
It is well-documented that Baby Boomers have been leaving their mark wherever they go, forever changing perceptions of aging and turning the lifestage that was once referred to as “middle age” (ages 48-66) into an unprecedented new life chapter. Boomers’ evolving tastes and eating habits are closely aligned with their changing health and wellness needs. Sandy’s shopping notes illustrate why food and beverage manufacturers, marketers and retailers need to pay close attention to Boomers and travel with them for glimpses into the future marketplace of products and services for aging consumers.
While grocers today must cater to diverse demographic groups as well as eating occasions, regardless of age, shoppers using lists and “loading up” weekly at a primary food retailer are increasingly more of a minority than ever before. Boomers, like Sandy, may shop around some for food, but are just as likely to demonstrate a relatively old-fashioned loyalty for one or two favorite stores. This is very much in line with our research where we find 52% of Boomers say they shopped one store on their most recent grocery shopping trip. More than one-third (36%) shopped two stores, which is reflected in part by Sandy’s other regular choice for grocery shopping, specialty retailer The Fresh Market. When compared with younger and older generations, Boomers, in general, are slightly more likely to say they shop fewer stores for food than Millennial and Gen-X consumers or the older Silent generation of consumers.
Compared with other age groups, Boomers are most likely to shop one store for groceries on a particular shopping trip.
Source: Shopping Topography report, The Hartman Group, 2012.
In her own words, then, Sandy takes us along for trips to Publix, The Fresh Market and Kroger.
Sandy's Grocery Shopping Habits
“Most of my shopping is done on a weekly basis. I find that I spend less money this way. I guess that makes me a throwback from the ‘good old days.’ I do use a list and separate by meats, produce, deli and other.”
“Publix is the main store I frequent. Publix puts out an ad in the paper weekly. I do check the ad but only buy the sale items I normally use. I believe their pricing is relatively in line. Because I live in the South, most encounters with staff are quite courteous and helpful. Customers often interact with each other, telling patrons what meat or produce they prefer and why. It's quite a social event. Publix displays many of their sale items in bins or coolers at the front of the store. I shop for fresh food—meats, produce, deli and bakery. Their meats are mostly packaged but they will cut or break up packages for the amount you want. The seafood and fish section is separate and picked out on request. They do have some frozen fish but I don't use it. I do use the store brands unless they have another brand on sale. I don't buy many frozen things other than some veggies. My packaged goods include soups, some salad dressing, condiments, spaghetti sauces and pasta.”
The Fresh Market
“The Fresh Market is a totally different experience. I go there at least every other week. I make a list but it is pretty much impulse buying. Everything is beautifully displayed and most enticing. It has a fresh, organic base. The store is smaller than Publix but more costly. This is not grocery shopping. It is experiencing the joy of food. You want it all. It has a more ready-to-heat-and-eat base. One would never have to think about preparation again. They do it for you. They do have extensive produce and meat sections for the chef in you. The deli is a large square area in the middle of the store. One side has salads, sides and entrees that only need heating, ordered by amounts to suit your needs. Another side has cooked, hot meats ready to eat and the basic deli meats and cheeses for slicing. The third side is another area of prepared and packaged items such as soup, pizza, sushi, salads and sandwiches to pick up and go. They will also make sandwiches for you. The last side has an array of cheeses from all over the world. The meat and seafood area has all cuts of meat but also many items marinated or stuffed. These items come with cooking directions. Everything in the bakery is mouth-watering. The employees are helpful and polite. I do enjoy this store!”
“Kroger is the closest store to my home. I do have their rewards card but only shop there infrequently. I don't like the layout of the store or their displays of items. Their customer service is less than helpful or pleasant. This Kroger store is relatively new. There is cold hardness upon entering. I'm not sure it it's the lighting or the flooring. The deli has mostly pre-packaged items—not much freshly made. They have added a sushi section which I have never tried. The bakery goods do not have that "pick me" look. The department looks more like the regular bread or cookie aisle. The produce does not always look really fresh and a couple of times they didn't have the mushrooms I needed. The seafood department is good. In fact, I would buy my seafood at Kroger because it looks better than Publix. Publix has since upgraded their seafood dept. Fresh Market is still the best. Their meat department is okay but does not have the variety of cuts or butchers readily available. On several occasions, the 1% milk that I buy was outdated or ready to expire. I haven't used any Kroger brand other than their milk, if fresh. The store is quite large. Part of the problem is that they devote too much space to non-grocery items. They have a large section of kitchen goods such as dishes, silverware, bowls, small appliances, etc. They also have a large area of seasonal items not related to groceries. Even Walmart separates their grocery section from the rest of the store. Another issue is the lack of open checkout lanes. On more than one occasion, they would have only one lane open with one cashier. They did have self-checkout lanes and one minimum-items lane. When it would get really crowded, they took their time to open a second lane. More than once, I was the next person to be served and the new cashier would take someone behind me. The last time this happened, I almost left my cart there and walked out. That was the last time I did any extensive shopping there. I have never been in the other Kroger store in my area.”
As we can see from Sandy’s notes, when it comes to food, Boomers are likely to make conscious choices when it can affect their lifestyle. Boomers particularly associate food with occasions that have meaning. Notice how Sandy enjoys her shopping experiences at both Publix and The Fresh Market, not only in terms of store experience, but because of what she sees as better customer service and product freshness. The Fresh Market clearly inspires Sandy (e.g., “mouth-watering”) and has placed itself at the forefront of her mind as a premium food experience.
Her disappointment with Kroger lies in a veritable litany of negatives ranging from over-emphasis of non-food merchandise, gloomy store atmosphere, and poor checkout and exit experiences. Her perceptions of freshness have been dampened several times at Kroger and raised at both Publix and Fresh Market.
Overall, Sandy’s perceptions of Kroger are indicative of troubles plaguing a number of large, middle-market grocers these days who see customer attrition due to pull from upmarket and downmarket retailers. Competition in the middle ground of grocery is fierce, and upbeat staff and customer experience clearly put Publix ahead in this particular example.
As they look ahead, Boomers are redefining their lives and seeking out experiences and foods that are worthwhile and meaningful. Keeping an open mind is clearly a key component of staying young, and remaining open to trying new foods, new cooking methods and new foreign cuisine is part of this. As time becomes increasingly important, Boomers are more reflective of what they have done in their past and conscious of how to plan for their future. They make careful choices that express their values and aspirations.
As Boomers continue to be on the lookout for ways to better themselves or improve the quality of their lives, they will have a significant impact on the food and beverage marketplace. Their shifting and evolving behaviors and purchase decisions will continue to redefine and reshape the brands, products and services they are most willing to pay for and invest in. They will continue to challenge the traditional stereotypes of what it means to grow older.
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.