The Evolution of the Shopping Equation

If — in cartoon fashion — we could read the thought bubbles above the head of each food shopper capturing their internal dialogue as they walk the supermarket aisles, we would know that their minds are a whirlwind of activity. In addition to processing the adventures and happenings of their day as they stroll behind their cart, they are also answering questions such as "Are we out of this?" and "Would this be good tonight?" But if we pushed deeper into the creases of those thought bubbles, we'd also realize that customers are engaged in a complex algebraic world busily solving for X, where X answers the question, do I buy this product? For decades, the consumer's calculus for making decisions about the products they bought and the stores they shopped was a rather simple formula containing just three factors; cost, taste and convenience. But like so much else in life, the consumer equation driving the shopping decision is growing much more complex.

Many in the food retail consumer affairs world have speculated for years that other considerations were getting factored into the traditional cost, taste, and convenience shopping equation. What we did not know was how deep and how extensive these new evolving drivers of health and wellness, safety, social impact, and experience were reaching into the consumer shopping psyche. New research performed by Deloitte with the collaborative support of Food Marketing Institute and Grocery Manufacturers Association provides new insight into how pervasive these new factors are in shaping the purchase decision. According to findings in the study, "Capitalizing on the Shifting Consumer Food Value Equation," 51 percent of the over 5,000 shoppers surveyed indicated that they weigh evolving value drivers more heavily than the traditional ones. Not only does this mean that the consumer value equation has grown more complex, it also means it has done so at a rate and to an extent we can no longer ignore. This is no longer a niche group who bring their particular values to bear on a purchase decision; it is now half the shoppers whose purchase equations includes any number of additional considerations, including environmental deliberations, labor and animal welfare concerns, thoughts about long-term food safety and wellness preferences.

There was another important finding emerging from the Deloitte study that we dare not miss. It would be an easy assumption to lay responsibility for the rising power of these evolving drivers at the feet of the millennial generation. After all, they are known to not be as brand loyal, open to new ideas and are proving much more socially conscious. However, that would be a faulty assumption and a grievous error to make. The benefit of a large pool of survey participants is it allows the possibility of multiple views of the findings from diverse demographic perspectives. What multiple passes at the results revealed was that the new evolving drivers are equally important across all geographic regions, across all age groups, and remained highly important across all income groups. The train hauling the freight of a more evolved purchase decision equation is not being driven by any one generation, region of the U.S. or economic group. The shopping calculus of a low-income Gen Xer in Wisconsin was as likely to contain elements of the evolving drivers as that of a high-income baby boomer in California or a middle-class member of the great generation in Georgia.

Those who use these evolving drivers in their shopping decisions also appear more likely to use social media, mobile applications and digital sources to gather their information, so the successful marketing strategy to reach these shoppers contains several factors. Food retailers desiring to reach or retain shoppers with evolved values must be fluent in the new language of social concerns, know the nuanced and expanding conceptions of health and wellness, and remain vigilant in the facets of food safety the customer expects. It also means being able to express the company values and store commitments to these evolving drivers through social media channels so shoppers can perform their assessment(s).

In other words, the customer wants to read the thought bubbles above your head, as well.