Market View: Eating Alone and Eating Alone Together

Single-person households, now the largest segment, are an attractive and underserved niche.

By John Stanton, Contributing Editor

About three years ago I wrote an article about single-person households. I was pointing out the single-person household (SPHH) has become the most common household size in the U.S. Most people would guess three or four is the average-size household.

SPHHs in the U.S. hit 28 percent in 2013, but I expect that's much larger today. Additionally, the percentage of households with married couples and no children is 29 percent. The percent of SPHHs surpassed the number of households with married couples and minors at home at 19 percent.

Like most demographics, they’re not evenly distributed across the geography. In major metropolitan areas, the number of SPHHs is as high as 45 percent. If global demographics are any indication as to how high this number may reach, Korea, for example, has 47 percent SPHHs and Britain and France are approximately 35 percent.

Since I wrote that article I’ve seen minimal change in terms of the food industry attempting to capture that audience. I do believe there is a significant effort to capture the millennial audience, but frankly the millennials and the SPHHs are not the same, although there is clearly an overlap.

Single-person households include the millennials postponing marriage till later in life as well as middle-aged males and females that have either divorced or lost their partners, plus older Americans who unfortunately live alone as a widow or widower. All three of these groups share some common eating behaviors, but all three have some key differences.

The younger singles differ significantly between males and females. Males eat far less traditional meals, eat far more take-out-type foods and tend to be grazers. Single females, on the other hand, tend to be much more aware of weight and health issues and make meal choices that are perceived to be healthier and less caloric. However, both want the appropriate portion for one person.

Older singles usually fall into two categories. In one, the remaining partner continues to cook at home as he or she probably was the more experienced cook. The other type of older single has given up on making meals for himself and usually dines with friends, often at restaurants or other people’s houses.

The questions every food marketer should ask are, “Do we have products that are ideal for SPHHs? If not, what can we do to change that?”

Just changing your advertising is not an alternative. 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 featured in the advertising versus a traditional family. They want honest concern for their needs.

What do younger single consumers want? Everything! They want products in smaller sizes. Bulk (unpackaged) foods are perfect for them. They can buy just enough cereal for the time they need it and not have the rest of the box go to waste. Ironically, branded bulk food should be sold at a higher price than the package foods because it more perfectly meets the requirements of the single customers. However, our myopic food marketers believe price is the only thing that matters, and since it is cheaper to produce bulk food they sell it for less.

A recent Mintel study reported the most desired attribute from pizza restaurants was personal-sized pizza. Consumers hate wasting not only the food but the packaging and everything that goes with it. And it enables diners to try a greater variety of flavors, especially young singles.

Young singles live on the internet. They will check everything. Most websites are product-based, that is you click on a particular company’s product and it tells you all about that product. Websites should be focused on customer types, so a single-person household can go to the section of a food processor's website targeted to singles. We don’t see that on many company websites because while we sing the praises of being customer-focused, we are still very, very product-focused.

I recommend food manufacturers do an audit of the extent to which their products are focused on single-person households. Product by product. Ask yourself is this a product that could be targeted to the SPHH with a few changes? One of my favorite companies is Hormel. I love Spam, but a full can is just too big for me and I'm not really sure what to do with the leftover portion. So Hormel created Spam Single Classic. Not too complicated but very targeted!

Look to make singles loyal to your brand, because there are riches in niches.

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