Girl pouring milk into glass.
September 12, 2018

Why Do I Have to Put My Pants On to Buy Groceries?

 |  By: Jim Dickrell

This isn’t your grandma’s grocery store, or even the food market you remember from a decade ago.


Today’s food outlets are being forced to provide new, innovative products that fill specific niches for a variety of consumers ranging from teenagers to octogenarians. The youngest of these, weaned on iPhones and iPads, are driving these changes, says Mike Lee, a food futurist with The Future Market who once worked at Chobani in product development. He spoke this summer at the Midwest Dairy Association’s “Dairy Experience Forum.”


The new consumer attitude, particularly among the youngest segments of consumers, is simply this: “’If I can get all of this stuff shipped to me (while I’m sitting on the couch tapping my iPhone), why do I have to put my pants on to go to the grocery store?’ You have to make it worth their while.”


Lee notes that teenagers now spend more on food than they do on clothing. “Food has become a way to express yourself as a teenager,” he says. “Food is identity. It has become a proxie for [being part of a] community.”


Millennials, numbering some 75 million and born between 1981 and 1997, are even more powerful. They are currently spending more than $100 billion a year on food, and in a decade, that number will swell to $260 billion, says Lee. “This is not a niche group.”


But millennials are not a monolithic group. They identify with a wide range of food choices. To meet the needs of this diverse population, differentiation is absolutely essential. That’s why categories for organic, grass fed, ultra-filtered, lactose free and A2 milks are growing.


“Sustainability is a big part of it,” says Lee. Young consumers want to make a statement that the food they eat is not harming the environment. The challenge for food companies is simply this: “What does sustainability taste like?” he asks.


Plant-based foods are tapping into this niche. “They are creating the perception that they are more healthy and sustainable,” says Lee. “About a third of Americans are flexitarians. They eat more vegetables, but do eat meat occasionally. I don’t think this trend is going away.”


Lee believes real dairy products still have the advantage over vegan knockoffs of dairy products. “But the gap is closing and will eventually disappear,” he says.


In the interim, the dairy industry can learn from plant-based food innovators: Offer new, innovative products and more choices. The dairy industry must listen to consumers and learn from ‘edge’ consumers—those people who are constantly seeking out the new, the different, even the weird.


“People eat food for selfish pursuits (taste, indulgence, health, weight management, lifestyle choices). You really want to latch on to that,” Lee says. “Food is emotion. You sell food one bite at a time.”


For more on how dairy can remain competitive, click here.