Happy New YearIt’s that time of year when The Hartman Group takes stock of what we’ve learned in day-to-day interactions with consumers and views it all through a broader lens—and this year was a doozy.

The year’s headlines reflect how disruptive it has been for the food business: Kroger said grocery shoppers became more unpredictable in part because of food-stamp benefit reductions. Wal-Mart reported a decline in packaged food sales and expectations for a flat holiday season. Amazon got more into groceries with a long-awaited expansion of its food home-delivery business—and freaked everyone out with a plan to someday deliver lightweight items using drones. The idea sparked a fresh idea from Stephen Colbert, who suggested the online retailer instead open “spending habit opportunity spaces”—S.H.O.P.S.—where consumers could buy goods in person.

The disruption was apparent at the household level, too. Consumers are increasingly aware of the food they eat, which makes talking to them more fascinating than ever. Here’s our list of seven trends that disrupted food culture in 2013.

  1.  Snacks, the Modern Meal?

    Consumers’ pursuit of snacks continues unabated. They now account for more than half of all eating occasions, rendering the word itself almost obsolete. What we used to think of as snacks—food eaten between meals—has morphed into something so frequent and large that they are practically meals themselves. People want healthy, less processed snacks that are easy to carry, something food companies are still working to deliver.

  2.  Social Media Disrupt Food Culture

    Sorry, Mom; you’ve been replaced as the go-to source for culinary questions. People consult social media sites instead for cooking tips, restaurant reviews and recipes (Allrecipes.com is a top-10 most used social media site). They see friends post photographs of their meals on Facebook and text family members with questions and grocery-shelf photos while they shop. Social media amplify the power of personal recommendations, which now can reach millions of people in a day.

  3.  Online Grocery, Still Coming

    The Internet shapes the way people grocery shop, showing them dishes around the world without their having to leave home and demonstrating, via food blogs and videos, how to cook those same foods. The part that has not worked so far is online grocery shopping, and The Hartman Group’s research shows 54 percent of people online say they are not likely to buy food there. Nevertheless, 2013 brought the long-awaited expansion of Amazon Fresh’s online grocery business, and many other online food purveyors—from Relay Foods to Blue Apron—have big followings.

  4.  It’s Not About the Coffee

    As McDonald’s tries to compete with Starbucks, selling espresso drinks and talking about where it buys (“sources”) its coffee, Starbucks is revamping its food case again, and Dunkin’ Donuts is expanding westward. Some call these the “coffee wars,” but the war is actually for consumers’ hearts. While Starbucks’ roast is dark and Dunkin’s is light, the people who align themselves with each brand are attracted at least as much to the experience as to the roast—and they transfer that loyalty to purchases of coffee beans on grocery shelves.

  5.  Food Competition Everywhere

    Consumers are likely to buy food almost anywhere now, from Ikea to Costco Wholesale to a Manhattan steakhouse planned by Brooks Brothers. People no longer fit their food needs around the hours and layouts of traditional grocery stores. Their new shopping patterns stoke competition and allow them to grab snacks on the go and assemble meals from food bought at multiple stores. Even when people do plan a meal, they are just as likely to ditch their plan for a restaurant craving, bringing every food source into the competitive arena.

  6.  Beating Fast Food at Its Own Game

    Supermarkets that listen to their customers—Whole Foods, Wegmans, H-E-B’s Central Market—offer fresh, healthy food that is easy to grab on the go. Many outdo fast food at its own, make-it-while-you-wait game, creating a bit of theater in the process. Diane Earle, senior director of prepared foods at United Supermarkets in Texas, nailed it when she told Supermarket News that cooking in front of customers enhances their perception that the food is fresh—precisely what consumers want.

  7.  Sustainability and the Good Company

    The Hartman Group has known for years that companies do not have to be perfect for consumers to value their sustainability efforts, but they do have to communicate. People continue to tell us that they want to know what efforts are under way, from taking care of animals to reducing environmental impacts, so they can feel good about what they’re buying—and sustainable purchasing typically starts with food.

These disruptions are ongoing, but 2013 was a year of unprecedented movement in many of these directions. Stay tuned for more as early in 2014 The Hartman Retainer Services team releases its annual trends report!

All of us at The Hartman Group wish you the happiest of holidays! We look forward throughout the New Year to bringing you more amazing facts and insights into the ever-changing and evolving worlds of consumers and culture.