Consumer Trends for 2009

With the economy affecting shopping, consumers grapple with prices and desires.

By Diane Toops, News and Trends Editor

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Health and wellness concerns were the overriding theme for 2008, and most consumers made a sincere effort to improve the eating habits of their families, albeit not always successfully.

As we head into 2009, the uncertainty of the global economic crisis is of great concern to all. At home in the U.S., now officially in recession mode, insecure consumers are worrying about their jobs, cutting back on their spending and assembling and eating more meals at home.

Fortunately for them, the cost of food is declining. U.S. food prices recently benefited from the plunge in corn, soybean and wheat prices (down about 50 percent) and the falling cost of energy – used to process, package and transport foods (down about 66 percent from record levels). But consumers could still wind up seeing a 4 percent increase in their grocery bills next year, according to the USDA.

Hope and optimism about the economy are seemingly in the air following the election of Barack Obama. So the question on all our minds is whether the economy will temper healthier consumer behavior and new product development from food companies as they grapple with prices and profits, or will American optimism and new-found confidence help to turn the tide. According to Chicago-based Mintel (www.mintel.com), there are five major ways consumers will adapt and businesses can thrive.

You are in control: Consumers are more confident and demanding about how they live their lives and spend their money. Even in recession mode, they’ll want to stay in control of their choices wherever they can. They will seek out products and services that give them exactly what they want, when they want it, especially as their budgets tighten. And the Internet will be key, showing people every option available, giving them the power to demand more, while also allowing them to influence others through user reviews and feedback.

“Those companies that give consumers precisely what they want or give them the freedom to customize their purchases will do well,” says Joan Holleran, Mintel’s director of research. “Companies that fail to do this will see consumers walk away.” Baby Boomers will be of particular interest to businesses. Companies will move beyond traditional “old age” products and services to ones that embrace the active, healthy lifestyles of many older consumers.

Simplify and purify: Faced with fast-paced modern life, consumers will continue to seek convenience and simplicity. As people take control of their everyday lives, they will also demand that companies communicate with them honestly and openly. From understandable ingredients to clear company practices, consumers want complete transparency when it comes to the products they buy. 

Datamonitor identifies floral flavors as trends for the new year, and McCormick already has a product out. Lavender was in McCormick’s annual flavor forecast in 2007.

Old-fashioned skills such as cooking at home and gardening will become increasingly popular. As an added benefit, these home-based activities will also help people stretch their budgets further.

Manufacturers will focus on clear ingredient labels and product, positioning fresh, clean and pure as essential values. “Brands that can communicate what they really stand for and show how they can make life easier will earn consumers’ trust and loyalty,” says Holleran. Additionally, with people “cocooning” in their homes to save money, companies will create better products for dining, relaxing and entertaining at home.

Rebuilding trust: Today’s consumers have high standards and will demand value for money, as well as consistently high levels of quality, safety and service. Crumbling economic markets, food scares and toy safety problems have fueled an era of doubt and insecurity. And so in the coming year, people will seek out trusting, open relationships wherever they can. People want to know all about the products they buy, from where they were sourced to how they were manufactured. They will cling to the long-standing, nostalgic brands they know and love, looking for products with a real sense of familiarity.

For many companies, the road to rebuilding trust with consumers will be long and difficult. Manufacturers will need to back up their words with actions and conduct business in a more open, honest way. Reassuring consumers that they are acting in the customers’ best interest will become a primary concern for businesses. Also, as companies see shoppers sticking to already-familiar products, long-standing brands will move into new markets to exploit their position as trustworthy companies.

Trading down (but a little trading up too): As purse strings tighten, consumers will look for every possible way to make their pennies stretch further. They will trade down to cheaper store brands and eat out less. But everyone will still crave a little treat now and again, indulging in small, affordable luxuries, like premium chocolate, designer sunglasses or a favorite moisturizer.

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