oyster with a peal

In a new twist on "the world is your oyster," the notion that "food is everywhere" is a refrain heard almost constantly in food industry circles and is an accepted fact among consumers. The Hartman Group analysts call it the "Roadside Pantry Effect" -- the idea that consumers now navigate a world of 360-degree food availability, picking and choosing from a huge pantry of roadside as well as virtual options.

It appears to be an even larger concept than the often-heard "multi-channel shopper," with new channels popping up all over. A recent New York Times article described one shoe salesman who has bacon, eggs, home fries and toast delivered to his car every morning. Roadside pantry, indeed.

In truth, consumers today aren't stocking up on food as they did in days of old: They change their minds on a whim, shifting from planned shopping and cooking to takeout in a matter of minutes. The Hartman Group research shows more than half of grocery trips now entail two or more stores.

The new dynamic can be disconcerting for food marketers, who often blame shoppers' stress and time constraints for the slow disintegration of pantry-stocking behaviors. Our research shows the "Roadside Pantry Effect" is rooted in many factors: Consumers don't want to have to plan food in advance. They can now eat on a whim, which makes food exciting and fun. They can choose not to go to a grocery store, but a restaurant instead. Even when they do have a plan for shopping and cooking, they can abandon it at the last minute and say, "Let's have pizza instead." At work, they can say, "I don't want to have Lean Cuisine today; I'll do Chipotle," because they overheard a co-worker talking about it.

With all the possibilities, consumers find a lot to be inspired and enthusiastic about, and they are influenced by technology as well. Photographs on Pinterest and reviews on Yelp can introduce them to places and foods they might never have considered. The excitement and array of choices lead consumers to compose meals rather than cook them in a traditional way. They often create meals from various components – a take-out dish here, a fresh vegetable there, something frozen from Trader Joe's or Costco on the side. The Hartman Group analysis shows that of all eating occasions, 77 percent involve some sort of prepared food.

As a result, grocery shopping trips have changed dramatically. Rather than organize a trip around meal plans for the next one or two weeks, consumers instead shop daily, or every two or three days, and fit the grocery shopping between other food possibilities. Another aspect of the "Roadside Pantry Effect" is that meals have become democratized in a way that rarely happened in decades past. Children and other family or household members now dictate food choices on a daily basis, causing customized shopping and meal creation at an individualized level never seen before today. Men have taken on a greater role as well, making their own choices as fully engaged shoppers in the constantly occurring roadside pantry tour.

In the days ahead, it is vital that food marketers grasp the enormity of the food choices and consumer enthusiasm that accompany the Roadside Pantry Effect. As people become increasingly engaged in exploring the world of food on foot and virtually, they will expect more from their food and the companies that provide it. They will continue to shed the constraints of traditional foods and old loyalties, turning instead to a kaleidoscope of exciting food possibilities that require less formal planning – but a different sort of planning that takes into account the entire Roadside Pantry.