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Digital Food Life 2014: How technology shapes the way consumers eat

digital food lifeShepherd’s pie. Pot roast. Macaroni and cheese. These are the meals that Alexis recalls from home as she sits in the kitchen lounge of her Seattle dorm while a floormate washes Ball jars.

Oh, and meat and potatoes. Potatoes are her favorite. The Idaho native appreciates that the campus cafeterias use real potatoes. Dorm food in general has improved since she’s been there, but Alexis is looking forward to living off campus next year and cooking her own meals – maybe even some of the zucchini bread that she mastered back home. For recipes and cooking advice, she expects to consult and, but mostly to call her mother and great-grandmother – and not just for family recipes. Her mom’s excellent Pad Thai, for instance, came from a recipe online.

consumer and technology

June Jo Lee, The Hartman Group’s vice president of strategic insights, spent hours with consumers such as Alexis learning how technology is influencing food culture.

Then there will be days when Alexis orders out. They happen even now, about once a week when she and friends want a break from dorm food. They order Pizza Hut, Thai food, sometimes bento boxes. If they’re not sure what they want, they peruse photos and menus from restaurants that deliver via

Across town, wife and mother Cheyenne lays out an impressive spread of magazines that inspire her home cooking. She also keeps a hard-copy binder full of her family’s favorite recipes – and much of it is also on a program called Evernote on her iPad, which makes traveling with recipes easier. “I kept losing Cook’s [magazines] when I took them out of the house,” she explained.

Cheyenne emails recipes to friends via Evernote, although she refuses to share her family recipe for chocolate cake.

consumer and technology

June Jo Lee and senior ethnographic analyst Greg Prang interview Cheyenne about how technology affects her shopping, cooking and eating patterns.

These are the conversations that Hartman Group analysts take part in by the dozen for research into food culture – in this case, the new Digital Food Life 2014 report establishing a cultural framework for understanding how consumers integrate digital technologies into their lives and the resulting influence on the way they eat and, even broader, food culture.

Our approach harnesses the “power of the small ‘n,’” allowing us to see beyond survey data into the way people actually live – not just how they imagine or report they do – and how they interact with multiple cultural forces. Paired with carefully constructed surveys, these interviews are the most potent tool that exists for understanding consumer behavior.

The Hartman Group’s archives are packed with 25 years of data on how consumers eat, and increasingly that research involves technologies that have become a ubiquitous part of people’s everyday lives: People share pictures of meals on Facebook and gain inspiration for recipes and ingredients on Pinterest. They use Twitter to interact with chefs and favorite brands. Date night sometimes means a couple sitting at the same table gazing into their smartphones.

With Digital Food Life 2014, we decided to go deeper. We spent hours learning precisely how technology influences the way people think about food – its effect on food culture.

What we found was astonishing: Through technology, food culture has shifted in such a way that it is no longer imperative that food marketers focus on consumers’ wants and needs. Instead, the most successful companies will pay attention more to what people are actually doing with food, how they play with it and what meals and snacks they make – all activities anchored by the digital world and far different from the “need states” marketers traditionally study.

A hallmark of that shift is how companies and consumers interact. Their dynamic is less one of “I offer/you buy or reject” than it is part of a participatory culture in which consumers carry clout beyond their purchasing power. People share information and ideas digitally and buy products directly from manufacturers. The hotbed of food and technology also incubates hyper-local, niche food players.

It’s probably not surprising that 70 percent of consumers use digital food resources at least weekly. Much of it is food play, including intimately crafted collections of recipes and food photos that people carry around in their phones and tablets. That also counts as a form of shopping preparation; rather than compiling lists of ingredients organized by retail categories, they consult their visual “digital cuisines” to figure out what’s for dinner. Indeed, 20 percent of smartphone users recently used Pinterest to access recipes or cooking instructions.

There is, of course, the digital buying of food – and its sophistication is both astonishing and seemingly unstoppable, with some people already imagining how CEO Jeff Bezos’ vision of home shopping deliveries via drone might affect the pizza business. Talk about food play.

Although people are concerned that technology diminishes their personal relationships and well-being, when it comes to food, they see technology’s effect as both vibrant and hopeful. In fact, 87 percent of online adults expect “significant progress” in the world of eating, food shopping or food creation during the next decade.

When you expect a drone to drop a pizza on your doorstep any year now, what’s not to be excited about?

To read more about how technology and food culture change the way food companies approach consumers, order your copy of The Hartman Group’s new report, Digital Food Life 2014.




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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