EXPERT COLUMN: The New Dad as Shopper

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EXPERT COLUMN: The New Dad as Shopper

By Jim Silburn - 07/17/2013

Who’s that guy pushing his cart confidently through the produce aisle, stocking up on milk and granola bars, reading cereal box labels and comparing prices per ounce?

That’s Dad — let’s call him the New Dad — and observant grocers have gotten pretty used to seeing him around.

Over the past couple of decades, the New Dad has quietly made a place for himself in family life, in the kitchen and in the grocery store. He’s participating more than ever in the nitty-gritty of running a household and is gaining on Mom in spending power.

The New Dad isn’t a fad. He’s here to stay, and grocers and brands who give him an authentic and relevant welcome are poised to win not just today, but in the future as well.

The New Dad Hits the Aisles

Overall, men are shopping more and spending more on groceries, and the trend should continue upward: In 2012, men spent $35.26 at the grocery store per trip, compared with $27.49 in 2004, according to Nielsen.

While that number includes late-boomer and Gen Xer men (especially dads) who are getting more and more comfortable doing the shopping, millennial men are the first generation to claim the grocery store aisles for themselves. More than half of men ages 18 to 34 say they’re the primary grocery shoppers in their households, although research into actual behavior patterns shows they might be overestimating a bit.

That means that the sight of Dad in the kitchen or the grocery store can no longer be played for laughs — at least not by brands that want to stay relevant.

The New Dad Reflects the New Family

Traditional families in which one spouse works and the other stays home have shrunk to about 20 percent of all families, down from 44 percent in the 1970s. Dual-earner families are on the rise, making up almost 60 percent of all married-couple families with children under 18, the highest percentage yet. That, inevitably, has changed the division of labor at home.

Today’s young parents (generally millennials/Gen Y) grew up in more egalitarian homes than the country had ever seen, and expect to create egalitarian homes for their families. Fathers and soon-to-be fathers of this generation expect to have wives who are as ambitious and educated as they are, if not more so. They expect that their wives will participate in providing economically for the family, and that they themselves will participate in running the household and nurturing the kids.

How the Millennial New Dad Shops

Today, 11.6 of U.S. households with children are headed by someone under the age of 35. The oldest millennials are included in that figure. As a great portion of the segment reaches the age where they’ll be starting families, the amount of spend they control will grow substantially. Capturing and engaging these young millennial parents during this important life phase can help brands establish relationships with consumers that will reap rewards for years to come. Recognizing the conflicts and issues millennial dads face at the grocery store, and presenting those problems back to them as opportunities, will help brands add value to Dad’s shopping experience.

YOLO Versus Nostalgia

“You only live once” is the millennial dad’s somewhat ironic battle cry. He’s been seeking out adventure since he took up snowboarding as a tween. He’s tasted foods from around the world at food trucks, his neighborhood hole-in-the-wall and on his trips abroad. He expects a little spice and excitement in his -- and his family’s -- meals.

At the same time, he’s part of a generation soaked in nostalgia, both for their own childhoods and for decades they never even witnessed. He’s drawn to products he remembers and those that evoke a safer, more centered era. Grocers need to feed his worldly palate and evoke that earlier time.

Going Green Versus Saving Green

Local, artisanal and small-batch products are synonymous with quality and exclusivity, and millennial dads are all too willing to succumb to the siren song of products bearing these labels.

The high-end taste of many millennial dads, however, doesn’t completely line up with their budgetary constraints. This means they’ll use coupons and buy store brands if it means they can buy $10 local honey. Grocers need to provide affordability and convenience without sacrificing quality.

Status Seeker Versus Conscious Consumer

While millennials are often applauded for their willingness to re-evaluate life priorities and place a greater emphasis on happiness, they’re still a fairly materialistic group, caught up in brand cachet and traditional measures of success. However, millennials expect brands to embody their better, more altruistic qualities and take a stand or support a cause.

Grocers need to make millennial dads feel good about their purchases and the way others will perceive them. Brands from Caribou Coffee to Zappos have learned to put values front and center; grocers can do the same thing. That might mean highlighting local, sustainable or healthier options with shelf stickers or specialized shelving. It might mean highlighting community work in end cap displays. Give dads a way to take a little credit for buying the “right” products.

Tech-savvy Dads

One area in which the New Dad experiences no tension is technology. He loves it. It’s a natural, organic part of every aspect of his life, and meal planning and grocery shopping are no exceptions. The New Dad would no more show up at the grocery store without his smartphone than his grandmother — okay, great-grandmother — would have gone out without a hat. On that phone, he’s already looked up recipes and saved them for later. And he can get instant suggestions from his social network should he need them while he’s in the store.

Not a Buffoon

When the New Dad heads out on Saturday morning with his grocery list in hand (or, more likely, on his smartphone, along with some crowd-sourced recipes and tips for the weekly menu), he isn’t just “helping Mom out,” and he’s not going to need a breadcrumb trail to help him find his way out. He’s not looking for a man cave-like experience, giant screens showing a football game or neon signs saying “Meat Here!” (although he’s pretty proud of his skills at the grill).

Dad’s not all that far from Mom in the way he shops. Grocers can find ways to streamline the shopping experience throughout the store, whether that means adding separate checkouts for delis, putting common grab-and-go items at the front or instituting mobile checkouts throughout the store. Grocers can also help Dad — and Mom — with the grocery list by adding services that store and recall last week’s receipt to use as this week’s grocery list.

While his Y chromosome doesn’t mean that he needs any extra help hunting down yogurt, the New Dad does appreciate efficiency and organization in the supermarket. The New Dad wants to get his groceries, savor a little one-on-one time with the kid who’s tagging along, and then get home to enjoy the rest of the weekend.

Savvy brands will dump the outdated stereotype of the bumbling, incompetent dad and offer useful tools and meaningful messages that reflect his vital role in the family. Examine your marketing and research practices: Are you doing as much research on Dad as on Mom? Do you feature men as well as women in flyers, ads and in-store signage? What about the magazines you display, or the samples and recipes you distribute?

The New Dad is a full partner at home and a savvy shopper. He should be welcomed into your stores.

Jim Silburn is director of client services at Minneapolis-based ad agency Colle+McVoy.