Taking a Tour Around the Modern Supermarket

Consumer food preferences are changing — how are grocery stores keeping up?

If you want to know how supermarkets have changed over time, look at how consumers are filling their shopping carts.  

The American diet has been getting healthier over the past few years — less red meat, more dairy- and gluten-free options, strong stances against sugar and additives.

And as consumer tastes evolve, new products emerge to capitalize on changing tastes. Almond milk, cashew butter, rice and potato flours — these are just a few recent examples of new CPG food products catering to different diets and nutritional choices. People are reading labels more carefully, counting calories more consciously, and picking produce more attentively. Naturally, this is reflected in how consumers shop, and what they fill their carts with at grocery stores.

Shopping lists mirror the change in people’s income, tastes, dietary fads and adoption of a healthy lifestyle. And, over the past decade, Americans have adopted quite a few — ranging from vegan, vegetarian, dairy-free and gluten-free diets. Appropriately, grocery store shelves have followed suit by offering new and revised products that accommodate these diets.

Crimson Hexagon turned to the trove of social media data to identify and analyze the evolution of the grocery store by tracing:

  • The changes in the American diet
  • Role of dietary fads in shopping habits
  • How brands accommodate these changes through products

Don’t touch my produce

Consumers love talking about their eating and shopping habits on social. In fact, they’ve posted about grocery shopping more than 17 billion times since 2010.

 

 

So if the discussion around produce hasn’t changed, what has? Packaged food.

The “….-free” diet

We have looked at how consistent consumers are while shopping for produce and meat but how does that translate with processed or packaged goods? When we looked for what consumers avoid while shopping, conversations pointed towards certain ingredients like sugar, salt, wheat, additives and flour.

*Other: gluten, high fructose corn syrup, starch, saturated fat, and trans fat

Looking at the consumer sentiment for each of these ingredients tells a more insightful story into rising consciousness around eating right and healthy and how that reflects in shopping habits.

The war against ingredients is rooted in certain lifestyle choices. For example, the rising concern around the use of hormones in milk has convinced many consumers to go dairy-free.

As we set out to investigate some popular nutrition trends like going dairy-free, gluten-free, vegetarian, and vegan — we found that these trends determine how consumers shop.

As conversations around different diet trends grows, new product lines and brands proliferate. We found that gluten-free has been driving the discussion since 2010, encompassing two-thirds of the total conversation. What started out as a conversation around celiac disease rapidly grew into a healthy lifestyle choice for many without gluten-insensitivity. And, it’s now evident on social that it is becoming trendier for some consumers to embrace certain nutrition lifestyles even when they don’t have allergies.

This trend has naturally led to a plethora of gluten-free products crowding supermarket shelves. As the demand for more specialized, allergen-free products has grown, several brands have stepped in to tap into this emerging market. Rice, almond, and coconut are the most discussed options, all of them have been talked about fairly evenly over the past 3 years. Rice flour was more popular six years ago, but experienced a slump between 2012-2014 before inching up again. Almond flour, however, has more than doubled in share of voice over the past six years.

Different gluten-free brands have to occupy shelf space at grocery stores. On social, Udi’s Gluten Free is mentioned the most, followed by Bob’s Redmill and Betty Crocker.

Rise of the vegan

“How do you know someone is vegan? Don’t worry, they will tell you.”

In the food conversation, veganism experienced the biggest surge over the past couple of years, rising from less than 200k posts in 2014 to over one million in 2015 and 2016.

Analysis of consumer sentiment further testifies this. Veganism and vegetarianism are discussed more positively on social, which correlates with the high negative sentiment towards dairy products.

While the dairy-free and gluten-free discussion is mostly driven by people discussing health conditions like allergies or intolerances and weight-loss, the vegan discussion is more ideological and centered around those opposing animal products and sharing alternatives for different types of food to eat.

The rising consciousness around veganism dovetails with adopting a dairy-free diet. Among non-dairy products, almond milk has become the most popular option, cutting into the soy milk conversation over the past six years. Almond milk has risen from 30% share of voice in 2010 to 50% in the past year. Coconut milk, however, appears to be making a comeback while cashew milk has found its way into discussion in just the past three years.

That sentiment is reflected in brand preferences too. Blue Diamond Almond Breeze is the most discussed non-dairy brand, followed by Love My Silk which makes almond, soy and coconut milk.

 

Don’t put that in my drink

As with foods, the beverage conversations on social have also become increasingly focused on specific ingredients. Consumers are becoming more cognizant of what goes in their creamers and are surprised by what they find, like vegetable or soybean oils. All too often, unrecognizable ingredients are labeled as chemicals.

These ingredient discussions reinforces once again that people check labels before buying a product, which can dissuade someone from making a purchase. Ingredients that top this list are: additives, aspartame, high fructose corn syrup and hormones.

Additives are most discussed with milk and juice whereas aspartame is most discussed with soda. Another culprit is high fructose corn syrup, found in soda and juice. Once thought to be a healthier alternative to soda, juice is now viewed more similarly to soda due to its high sugar content.

When we analyzed the conversations on social to understand the sentiments associated with these ingredients, we found that, unsurprisingly, most were negative. Aspartame topped the list as people called it a cancer-causing substance which also induces mood swings. High fructose corn syrup, a cheaper alternative to sugar, also is discussed negatively for its association with diabetes.

When it comes to milk, hormones are a big topic of concern. For dairy products, people actively seek brands that do not include rBst hormone, like Breyer’s or Finlandia Butter.

What’s in a name (brand)

As we have discussed, shopping carts are continually getting sorted based on changing dietary choices. But is that all that influences buying decisions? Not really. Taste, quality and value has its own place in shoppers’ minds. We now have a clue of the products people shop for in keeping with their lifestyles but what brands do they prefer? And who makes those choices?

A deeper dive into social conversations made it evident that buying behavior is influenced by families shopping at supermarkets.

Families contribute lion’s share to the grocery shopping discussion, amounting to 57% share of voice since 2010.The conversation within family ranges from which family member buys the groceries to bickering over brands.

These conversations revealed a great deal about distinct brand preferences among consumers. Contributing to 4% of family discussion (over 120K posts), we identified that brands play an important role in purchasing decisions and there are three main categories of brands people routinely mention — name brands, grocery store brands, and generic brands. Overall, name brand products are discussed the most.

 

There are two major themes in how brands are discussed on social — value and quality. And these two factors determine the positive and negative sentiments about different brands. Generic or “off” brands, though favorable in terms of value, are discussed more negatively as being disappointing when it comes to taste. Kids, specifically, frequently take to social to criticize generic brands for their poor taste and texture. Naturally, this determines what brands supermarkets stock their shelves with.

Conclusion

Diet fads come and go with evolving consumer preferences and tastes. But as they pass by, they change minds and influence shopping habits.

What products do shoppers like to buy? What is influencing those decisions? What types of foods a hit among consumers and what other kinds do they avoid? Where is the line of compromise between value and quality?

These are all questions that big retail like supermarkets and grocery stores need to be cognizant of while stocking shelves. The answer to such questions and more can be found hidden in consumer reactions and conversations on social media. This is a part of a larger series on consumer packaged goods. Download the larger report on consumer opinions of groceries and nutrition in the consumer packaged goods industry below.

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