Grocery Buying in the Current Economy

Worried consumers cut back on luxuries and convenience foods.

By Diane Toops, News & Trends Editor

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How were shoppers affected by the economic downturn? How did it change their health and nutrition attitudes toward buying functional or fortified foods or environmental practices like recycling? To find out, HealthFocus International (HFI), a consulting firm specializing in food and nutrition issues, conducted surveys in April and October of 2009.

"Grocery Buying in the Current Economy" is the resulting report. The survey of 1,000 primary shoppers last April found 35 percent of shoppers were, indeed, affected by the economy through household income reductions, which in turn changed their shopping behavior.

Six months later, HFI surveyed another 1,000 shoppers to gauge their current attitudes and find out which food and beverage items were most impacted as they started cutting back on groceries they purchase to save money. (Both surveys excluded shoppers that had been unemployed for longer than six months and unemployed retirees.)

Many of the concerns reported in the April 2009 study are still in place and are continuing to impact shopper cost cutting behaviors.  Some 36 percent of respondents suffered household income reductions, on par with the previous six months, and 78 percent were either extremely or somewhat nervous about the economy (down from almost 90 percent six months before).

Two key groups of shoppers exhibited particularly interesting behavior changes: those who are very nervous about the economy and shoppers with annual incomes over $75,000.

Almost 80 percent of shoppers are still very or somewhat nervous about the economy (down from almost 90 percent six months ago). Although that is a small improvement, fewer than 1 in 10 shoppers are confident about the economy. So the improvement is not translating to a positive outlook but, rather, arresting the negative decline. High levels of concern continue to have a profound impact on shopper actions and attitudes.

Almost three quarters of the October shoppers had a higher level of concern about the cost of groceries than those in the April survey. Shopping on sale increased, and more than half the shoppers in almost every group are buying on sale more now than in the past.

Almost 60 percent of shoppers report eating out less at fast food restaurants (up 11 percent) than they did six months before. Those very nervous about the economy became even more proactive and aggressive in their commitment to manage/reduce costs; 12 percent claim they cut coupons more often, and more than half (54 percent) cut down on the quantity of groceries purchased to save money, up from 42 percent.

The group that is very nervous about the economy represents almost a third of all shoppers and, clearly, the extended economic uncertainty has had a very profound and deepening impact on their attitudes and behavior regarding food and beverage purchases.

Those with incomes greater than $75,000 are more moderate in their approach to “cutting back,” but almost three-quarters of this group are concerned about the future. And their food & beverage shopping patterns have been impacted to a significant degree.  They are more aggressive in their effort to manage costs than they were six months before. Almost half now cut coupons more, up 15 percent from the prior study, and spend less on entertainment. More impactful to manufacturers, 40 percent buy private label or store brands more often.

As in the April study, about a third of shoppers report they “have recently started cutting down on the quantity of groceries we purchase to save money.”  Items that shoppers may see as “luxuries” but “not essential” include convenience, desserts, snacks, and candy. Admittedly, what shoppers actually do may not match what they claim they do, but these items are the ones shoppers attitudinally consider to be the most expendable to save money.

Conversely, the items shoppers claim to cut back on the least are basic foods and core health items like fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, protein and grains. All things being equal from a cost perspective, these (attitudinally) are the items shoppers consider the most valuable.

“I think it’s critical that even the highest-income consumer is looking for ways to cut back in the grocery store,” says Barbara Katz, HealthFocus president. “It says to me that even without income cuts, loss of equity and declining real estate values, people are looking at ways to save money.”

For the full report contact julie.johnson@healthfocus.com

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