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'Supermarket Guru' says shoppers are not going back to the old days

by Tim Linden | October 26, 2010

ORLANDO, FL — Phil Lempert, the self-proclaimed "Supermarket Guru," claims that the days of old are gone and they are not coming back.

Discussing consumer behavior trends at an Oct. 15 workshop during the Produce Marketing Association's Fresh Summit International Convention & Exposition, Mr. Lempert said that today’s shoppers are going through difficult economic times, which will shape their shopping habits forever just as they did the generation that lived through the Great Depression of the 1930s.

That generation became a frugal one, he said, because it grew up counting its pennies, and collectively the members of that era never could shake that feeling. The same thing is happening now.

“We have lived through our own depression, and we are not going to go back to the period where we wasted money, especially on food,” Mr. Lempert said. During his one hour at the podium, Mr. Lempert gave many different tips and suggestions, but the theme of his talk was that sellers need to get ahead of trends and anticipate them rather than react to them.

“Consumer trends are changing and evolving all the time,” he said. “You have to think ahead of the trend.”

A classic example of ill-advised reaction to a trend after the fact was the low- carb diet craze of several years ago, he said. Many companies responded by developing low-carb options, but by the time they came out with their new products, the trend was over.

He said that operations such as dollar stores seem to have a jump on their competition as they can change on a dime. They typically are not wedded to particular store designs or any specific mix of products. If a trend starts to occur, they can react quickly, changing whatever needs to be changed.

Mr. Lempert noted that Walmart is moving in that direction with the establishment of much smaller stores in the 12,000- to 15,000-square-foot range that are obviously more flexible than a store with 100,000 square feet of sales space.

Mr. Lempert said that building smaller stores is a trend and that the produce industry needs to figure out how to anticipate that new dynamic. Smaller stores mean fewer items on display, which means a reduction in the number of SKUs.

The industry, he said, needs to figure out what this means and not be caught off guard.

On the other hand, he said, these smaller-store formats need produce items more than any other food sector, since produce drives traffic to these stores.

The Supermarket Guru, who uses that moniker on a popular blog that he writes, said that a great consumer trend for the produce industry is one that is “sending cooks back to the kitchen.” He said that the local food movement is also involved in this trend, since people want to have closer ties to the food they prepare and eat. This means more cooking and greater use of fresh fruits and vegetables.

To capitalize on these food trends, Mr. Lempert urged produce companies to promote their products using new technologies such as iPhone or iPad apps. And he said that anything a produce company says should stress the health benefits of fruits and vegetables, as those are issues of concern for consumers. Nutritional information is second only to taste in driving consumer purchases, he said.

Mr. Lempert also urged food producers to continue to develop and supply consumers with new recipes. Recipes are very important, he said, in driving food sales.

“I know it is expensive, but change the recipes on your labels all the time,” he said.

With heart disease and obesity topping the list of health concerns, and baby boomers moving toward retirement age, Mr. Lempert said the future is bright for healthy foods.