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Meal Kit Delivery: Carving Out Relevance in Food Culture

Meal kit delivery iconHunker down and buckle up. The forecast is for a sort of bombogenesis to descend upon and stall over the food retailing marketplace as the rapidly intensifying option of online sources for groceries and meal ingredients converges with the traditional brick-and-mortar food retailing environment. We’re in for a long, bumpy ride.

Disruption is well underway, headlined with the news of Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods Market, followed in short order by Albertsons’ purchase of meal kit delivery operator Plated and the IPO of another meal kit delivery company, Blue Apron, which then partially fizzles due in no small part to trademark filings relating to meal kit capabilities made by, you guessed it…Amazon. Turbulent times ahead indeed.

While meal kit delivery companies have certainly captured the imaginations of investors and the media, consumers are a different story.

Consumers are cautiously reveling in the bounty of seemingly endless choices available to them in terms of where to source groceries, meal ingredients and take-away “ready-meal” foods. Sure, business events that intersect with their grocery shopping, cooking and eating activities might be turbulent and even chaotic, but such chaos only pales in comparison to the fragmentation of eating culture in their own lives, particularly when fragmentation is such an apt way to describe the varying and often conflicting food choices at the proverbial “family dinner.” Consider:   

  • How we used to eat. Meals were taken together, and eating was largely a communal affair. Mothers (or even grandmothers) were the primary planners, shoppers and cooks for the household. Today, planning, shopping and cooking have become decentralized, and the democratization of the family and sharing of income-earning duties have given everyone a say in food choices. Men participate in food management for the household, as well as grocery shopping. Increasingly, we eat alone, even those in multiperson households.
  • In traditional eating culture, eating was regimented, and planning and cooking of meals were highly structured. The consummate homemaker made lists and shopped for meals in order to execute against a weekly meal plan that often did not deviate. In today’s eating culture, planning, shopping and eating happen much more fluidly. Mealtimes often stretch or shift beyond their “appointed time” or can be skipped altogether.

Which brings us to one of the biggest hurdles meal kit delivery companies face: more time and labor are required to prepare a meal kit than a typical weeknight meal. According to our Food Shopping in America 2017 report, convenience is still a key need. But much like value, consumers’ ideas of what convenience means have matured.

Consumers’ desire for quick and easy is increasingly matched by an unwillingness to sacrifice flexibility in choice, a positive experience and personal needs. With more products and retailers catering to the demands of the new convenience, from prepared foods to meal kits to click & collect services and online delivery, consumers can factor these into their shopping habits and look for convenience options that also provide enjoyment.

What does convenience in food sourcing mean today?

Our Food Shopping in America 2017 report finds that past perceptions of convenience were about easy (known layout), quick (short lines, plentiful parking) and accessible (easy-to-access location). Contemporary notions of convenience are about flexibility (immediate consumption, spontaneity), experience (atmosphere, staff interaction) and customized designed (grab & go, inspirational, meets my nutrition, taste, portion-size needs).

Meal Kit Delivery Awareness and Usage

Convenience is not the only benefit of online grocery shopping or a meal kit delivery service. Value, a way to break away from the routine, an alternative source for when you can’t get to the store and a time-saver are notable advantages consumers cite for shopping online or using a meal kit delivery service. As this Gen X consumer told us about using meal kit delivery:

“I don’t think I could do (dinner) for that cheap. Plus, (Blue Apron) has a monthly wine box to go with the food. Just gets us outside of our meal rut.”

There is a growing awareness of and interest in participating in meal kit delivery services like Blue Apron or Plated. Our Food Shopping in America 2017 report finds online shoppers are much more aware of the variety of services available online. On average, consumers are aware of 12-13 online services (e.g., Amazon Prime, AmazonFresh, Walmart, Uber, Blue Apron) and currently use an average of 2-3 services, though they’ve experimented with many more.

Most online grocery shopping today still centers on the “typical” online stores like Amazon or, usually for supplemental trips. As the following chart illustrates, among online shoppers, using a meal kit, smoothie or snack box delivery service lags far behind these retailers.

   Online grocery services used graph

Millennials are interested in and already use meal kit delivery services that offer ingredient kits for “homemade” meal solutions.

“I use Bite Squad when I’m hungry but I don’t want to think about what I want…and I want good food…I don’t want ramen or a frozen meal.”

Our Foodways of the Younger Generations 2016: Millennials and Gen Z report finds that using a meal kit delivery service is more appealing to younger consumers: 65 percent of Millennials say they are interested in services that deliver ingredients for meals that they could assemble/prepare at home compared to 50 percent of Gen X and 33 percent of Boomers.

Meal kit delivery with blue background

Consumers who enjoy meal kits tell us about the pleasure they take in preparing a meal, and how kits help satisfy their needs for fresh, less processed foods, inspiration, culinary exploration, and ingredient sourcing. Interest in the more participatory elements of a meal kit vs. the time savings of a ready-made meal will vary from household to household (and day to day within the same household).

Is There a Place at the Retailing Table for Meal Kits?

The biggest hurdle for online retailers (meal kit delivery companies or online grocery retailers) remains overcoming consumers’ perceptions of an overall inability among purveyors to deliver fresh products, with cost a secondary but not unimportant issue. With a bit of savvy and perseverance, however, current online shoppers easily find ways to mitigate these issues. When it comes to meal kits, hurdles include perceptions of increased labor and time spent cooking compared to typical weeknight meals — this hurdle is overcome by making meal kit nights a social affair, where everyone helps cook.  Another hurdle when it comes to meal kits centers on pragmatic assumptions among consumers who say, “I already know how to cook and shop” — which is overcome by recasting meal kit subscriptions as an investment in ways to try new recipes, ingredients and flavor profiles.

There’s also a great deal of industry interest in culinary-assistance solutions like meal kits — which have garnered attention and investment from venture capital, large CPG players and major retailers like Albertsons and Amazon. We see opportunities here but counsel clients to be clear-eyed about the vulnerabilities, which range from supply chain and logistics challenges to issues with subscription models. The meal kit space is rapidly evolving in response to these challenges.

There is no doubt that technology has opened new avenues for food procurement, but our belief is that these emerging formats — from the local food specialists to smartphone-powered “instant” meal delivery — will not remake food retailing as we know it in the near term. The influence they will have will be more cultural than financial for now.

And yet the recipe-in-a-box model championed by Plated, Blue Apron and others seems like a natural fit for forward thinking grocers like Albertsons that are committed to the idea of online expansion. Why not offer existing online shoppers a set of ready-to-cook ingredients along with online shopping? Linked to food retailers offering meal kits, enhancing access to and information about local food offerings in their stores could easily satisfy this demand for all but the most discerning customers. These channels are wonderful brand builders and renovators for midmarket chains trying to defend themselves from threats on all sides.



Consumer Demographics Food & Beverage Occasions Consumer Package Goods Retail/Shopper Insights Technology/Social Media Trends Point Of View Foodservice/Restaurant


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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