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Understanding Consumer Behavior in Tough Times

From the average consumer’s perspective, these certainly are not the best of times. Pretty much everywhere you turn the economic news is pretty grim; consumers are faced with rising costs in nearly all directions: at the gas pump, the grocery store checkout, healthcare and home energy statements, prices continue to rise. In the real estate market, home values are declining. We’re converting food to fuel for our cars in an effort to be less dependent on foreign oil and fossil fuels in general, but which comes with the unintended consequence of raising food prices.

It is only natural to assume, of course, that with a bleak economy consumers must be cutting back and making trade-offs. While consumers have described to us over the years that they will be purchasing less food overall in tight economic times, they have also said they will not sacrifice quality for price; the quality of that food will remain high in order to preserve truly satisfying and enjoyable experiences. In short, consumers will not compromise their values (e.g., health, wellness, sustainability, etc.).

There is a long and enduring trend in American culture that whenever watershed moments appear to be upon us, both consumers and experts alike feel the need to draw context around the moment by pontificating about: a) what is happening, b) why or how their behavior is changing and c) what all of this means.

The unfortunate reality is that all of this haranguing usually has little to nothing to do with actual, real world behavior simply because nobody ever takes the time necessary to carefully study that behavior. It is much easier for us all — consumer and expert alike — to talk about the important implications of these sobering times as we continue to pump gas into our cars, shop for groceries and pretty much go on about our lives.

To those who predict major lifestyle changes associated with the rising cost of gasoline — increased carpooling, changing priorities, cancelled vacations, fewer trips to the store, etc. — we’d like to remind you the data always tells us: Consumers, when asked, will most often stress the dramatic impacts events, such as the rising price of gasoline or food, have on their lives; yet, the reality is that these singular events will not in and of themselves cause consumers to behave differently.

Today’s events are not like the stock market crash of 1929, which is associated with the beginning of the Great Depression in the United States, where millions of people lost their jobs literally overnight. Because of this food was scarce; people did all they could just to survive. This was a critically important institutional shock that altered the nature of everyday life for generations to come — and, by extension, consumer habits. With the exception of World War II, this similar type of shock simply hasn’t materialized for the American public since.

Today’s consumers lead incredibly complex, frenetic, complicated lives. Because of rising food and gas prices consumers may feel differently. They may think differently. Heck, they may even feel a need to feel like they should behave or act differently. But at the end of the day, life for most consumers continues pretty much in remarkably the same manner as it did prior to the price hikes.

Focus on Changing Food Culture

Food culture in America continues to change and evolve. For some time now, long before the current economic fears set in, consumers have been moving toward foods and food products rich with soulful elements and experiential signs and symbols attached to the food at the site of its everyday consumption. Our countless approaches to eating in the United States are interwoven with our family lives, our celebrations with friends and work colleagues, our life pace, our various culinary experiences at home and abroad, and so much more. This is what we mean by “the culture of food”: the panoply of cultural forces impacting the everyday production and consumption of food by ordinary consumers.

Since the ways we work, raise our kids, play, seek out new taste experiences and grow old are all undergoing titanic, rapid changes, the everyday culture of food is also shifting. This is why, even in the face of rising food and gas prices, American consumers will not abandon their interest in, or pursuit of, higher quality foods and food experiences — this behavior is by now ingrained in American food culture. The key lesson here is that to better weather tough times one needs to keep a close eye on understanding consumers’ actual behavior — not anecdotal responses to the press or answers to survey questions.

Focus on the larger cultural shifts driving the way we live, how and where we shop, when and why we shop and what we shop for. Remember, people are not just buying products; they are buying higher quality experiences. Here are four tips to help sort what may be only short-term blips from long-term trends in consumer behavior:

  • Examine data on consumer buying and shopping trends in order to separate changing behaviors already underway from those supposed to have changed in response to the current economic situation. Many experts use extreme events to “predict” or “explain” large shifts in consumer behavior that were, in fact, already occurring long before the events in question. We have seen, for example, small segments of consumers seeking greater simplicity in their lives. The events of the past few months have not triggered anything among these consumers. The economic downturn may have reinforced their decision to simplify, but it did not cause it. Paying attention to already existing trends saves you from making embarrassingly naïve statements, conclusions or decisions.

  • Stratify the population of consumers into groups that should be differentially affected by the current economic situation and see if, in fact, the expected behavioral change across these groups is observed. We know that when the going gets tough, those who are most economically strapped are affected most by the economic situation. We would expect to see lower income consumers making larger and more changes than wealthy consumers. This is just economic reality, and there’s no real mystery to be solved here. It’s important, however, to distinguish between short-term belt tightening and a genuine reorientation to consumption.

  • Compare currently hypothesized behavioral changes to known behavioral changes from similar periods in the past. Whenever there is economic uncertainty, there’s no shortage of predictions that this will cause consumers to reassess their priorities, put their houses in order, and finally clean out the garage. Well, we never really see this transpire beyond a handful of juicy anecdotes. Again, other than the predictable changes in consumption we expect when the household budget constraint changes, we don’t see anything suggestive of real consumer changes.

  • Separate attitudinal expressions from actual behaviors, and separate idiosyncratic, knee-jerk behaviors from more sustained, substantial behavioral changes. Many in the media, as well as analysts and industry experts, rely on expressions of anticipated or intended behavior rather than on careful observation of actual behavior. It is one thing to collect a large number of statements about behavioral intentions and another to observe actual changes in behavior. These observations do not have to be face to face. In fact, self-reports of recent behavior that are collected over time should show a pattern of changing behavior if there is any change. Similarly, it isn’t sufficient to see a spike in behavior to declare a shift has occurred. It may be that a large number of consumers make a one-time change in reaction to an acute sense of economic woes only to do an about face when they realize the sky really hasn’t fallen and that life can go on as usual.

As you can see, it is important to separate what might be temporary or only wishful thinking from meaningful shifts in consumer behavior that have real implications for food manufacturers and retailers.

Sign of the Times...

  • 41% of consumers say they generally are not able to relax and have a good time.

  • 51% of consumers say they generally are not able to deal with stress.

Source: Wellness Lifestyle Insights. The Hartman Group, Inc., 2007.

Price balloons

Hartman Commentary: Rising Food Prices Timely for Prepared Foods Departments

Concern for the rising cost of food (and most everything else) is very much top-of-mind today.

Read our timely thoughts on the unique opportunity we see for food retailers…

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