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Just-in-Time Meal Planning Impacts Food Retail Strategy

Food retail shopping is evolving as consumers increasingly look for meals and menus over stock-ups. Basket size gets smaller, shopping trip frequency goes up and the items in the cart increasingly come from perimeter fresh departments. It’s shopping for dinnertime.

We are witnessing the emergence of just-in-time food planning, a pattern of working to solve “What’s for dinner?” at 5 p.m. with the intent to prepare and serve by 7 p.m. on the same day. Every insight study we see tends to agree that consumers generally don’t know what’s going to happen at dinner, the most important meal time of the day for most households, until they are within a few hours of sitting down to eat it.

Emergence of this food culture shift is due in part to e-commerce shopping, now on an upward trajectory at food retail. Projections keep changing every six months as analysts and pundits predict a tipping point is drawing closer. With these rapidly changing forecasts the neon handwriting is flashing on the wall: omnichannel shopping will be the norm for most households.

Ecommerce will continue to dis-intermediate boxed, packaged, shippable foods that don’t require hands-on, eye-on-it selection and where delivery convenience just, well, gets more convenient.

As food retailers observe this condition, what are the biggest implications to merchandising and operations to meet the changing need?

For one, put yourself in the customer’s shoes. Imagine navigating a 50,000-square-foot store for five to nine items with the available time to manage aisle navigation already at a premium – you still need to get home and into the kitchen. Tick tock … can you sense the friction?

Shopping experience couldn’t be more important as this scenario unfolds. How does the store put itself in league with the shopper’s needs in this new world of buy-it-and-prepare-it happening in close proximity?

Let’s deconstruct this menu of behavioral change ...

People are cooking; how can you help them?

We are witnessing a renaissance in American kitchens. Consumers are voting daily at the cash register for their preference for fresh, real foods and prepared or semi-prepared dishes that will inevitably require some time at the stove. For some, this is a labor of love and inspiration. For them, cooking is a transcendent act of creativity.

For others, it is a chosen path to what they believe will be a healthier meal, with some or all of the preparation managed by others. Why? Because there is more control at home over ingredient choices, preparation methods and portions than eating out.

What tools, direction and guidance can your store provide to aspiring home cooks?

  1. Alleviate some of the stress with chef-inspired menus and meal plans.

  2. Provide downloadable recipes with companion shopping lists at your web site or social channels.

  3. The wildly popular, so-called “tasty” short-form cooking video shows hands moving over a sauté pan and hotplate. The minute-long production to demonstrate dish preparation in super simple steps. These could be aired in a perimeter video kiosk as customers shop for ideas as well as food.

  4. Create a range of meal ideas to satisfy the aspiring home chef who wants to exercise their culinary muscles, down to the 30 minutes-or-less crowd who need to get a satisfying meal on the table, stat.

  5. Do you have a cooking-school experience on the drawing boards? If not, consider it. You’re in the food inspiration business – not the selling of cans, boxes and bags business.

Friction-less Shopping

How can you help curate menu and right-now meal planning with rethinking the store footprint to put foods that go together within arms reach of each other? Easy-in and easy-out is the objective.

  1. Think of the deli as a hub, and how to arrange fresh spokes around it that make ‘meal sense’ and help put a menu within arm's reach.

  2. You can take the guesswork out entirely with meal kits and provide the meal solution with a handle on top. You can just see the smiles emerge.

  3. Provide an on-site vegetable butcher who can take produce selections and do the prep work for you – peel, slice and dice so you don’t have to.

  4. Deli prepared foods can be a predictable assortment of rotisserie chicken and meatloaf – or something more adventurous, akin to a restaurant menu. You can’t become a menu solution until you operate like one.

  5. Do-it-for-me can be an increasingly important business as the choices and quality go up. This may require new talent in the commissary, new thinking around menus and operational changes designed to reduce shrink as prepared product selection becomes more robust.

Who is in your kitchen? Culinary talent will impact all of this, as consumers grow increasingly sophisticated in their quality expectations. Make great food, not good food.

Bottom line: You need to rethink what business you’re in and look hard at how shopping experience and food quality must evolve to capture more and more of the just-in-time meal shopping behavior.

As supermarkets refine the in-store experience and thus earn greater trust as a dependable and affordable solution to shop at 5 and dine at 7, customers are provided with more reasons to shop more often. The meal answer is going to go somewhere and you want it to be from you.

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