A Closer Look at the Single Household

With the United States almost a household majority "single" nation, marketing expert John Stanton ponders if, or how, food manufacturers should adapt their marketing message.

By John Stanton, Contributing Editor

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I was watching the TV show "Modern Family" when I thought about what is the typical American family. It is certainly not like the iconic Norman Rockwell painting about Thanksgiving.

In fact there really isn't a typical American family, just lots of different types of American families. This is why mass marketing doesn't work anymore, unless you consider mass marketing to be putting your products on the shelves and going to Mass on Sunday and praying someone buys them.

The actual percentage of households headed by a married couple who had children under 18 living with them declined to 21 percent in 2010, down from 24 percent in 2000. So what type of household is growing?

Singles. They comprised 28 percent of all households, up from 17 percent in 1970 or about 31.4 million households. In some urban areas, the numbers are even higher as more than 40 percent of households have just one occupant in cities such as Atlanta, Washington and Seattle. In Manhattan, nearly 50 percent of households consist of a single occupant.

How things have changed. Americans are now almost a household majority "single" nation. Not since the baby boom have we seen such a significant change. Single households are fueling the economy. They spend more discretionary dollars than their married counterparts. Their average per capita annual expenditure was $34,471 in 2010, according to the federal Consumer Expenditure survey, compared with $28,017 for married individuals without kids and $23,179 per person in the highest-spending families with children.

The evidence (reported in Euromonitor) of singles buying power is beginning to emerge: in packaged foods, where Nestlé research shows that 90 percent of its Lean Cuisine meals are eaten alone (the company says it tried -- and failed -- to sell meals that could be shared by two people); in home furnishings, where Ikea reports that sales of products for "small space" living (where a single person is more likely to reside) are rising; to travel, where Norwegian Cruise Lines has begun offering special "studio staterooms" for solo travelers.

The rising number of single-person households presents opportunities for foodservice and food manufacturers. Single households have a high demand for frozen or ready meals that are portable and single-portion foods. They tend to visit restaurants more frequently, and affluent singles are willing to pay a premium for quality foodstuffs.

But here's the rub. There are two significantly different types of single households: young households and old households. And yes, they don't behave the exact same way. However they do have more commonalities than they do differences.

The question(s) that every food manufacturer and marketer should ask is "Do we have products that are ideal for single person households? And if not, what can do to change that?"

One alternative is not to just change your advertising. Singles are not looking to have the same products, the same portions, the same flavors, same packaging, etc as the multi-person households with the only change being a single person in the advertising versus a "traditional family." They want honest concern for their needs.

What do single household consumers want? Everything! They want products in smaller sizes. A recent Mintel study reported that the most desired attribute from pizza restaurants was personal-sized pizza -- aka smaller! They hate wasting not only the food but the packaging and everything that goes with it. They're willing to try more variety of flavors, especially the younger single households. While many retailers have moved away from bulk products such as cereals, pasta, candies, spices, etc., this is often ideal for singles as they can take the exact amount that they need or want.

I would recommend that food manufacturers do an audit of the extent to which their products are focused on single household markets. Product by product, ask yourself if this is a product that could be targeted to the single person household IF we were to make certain changes.

One of my favorite companies is Hormel. I love Spam, but one can is just too big for me, and I'm not really sure what to do with the leftover portion. So they created Spam Single Classic. Not too complicated but very targeted!

Focusing on singles also has another benefit. Many multi-person households eat like a group of singles. When kids don't like something, their parents fix something "just for them." (Obviously not my mother, who said I could have anything I wanted to eat for dinner as long as it was on my plate!) Busy married persons without kids often work different hours and eat at different times. Both these groups are ideal "single portion" consumers.

We once said, "The customer is king." Today she's more like a dictator and demands products designed and marketed specifically for her. Marketing is not making people buy what you want to sell, but selling what people want to buy.

This article originally appeared in the August 2013 issue of Food Processing Magazine.

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