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  • The Who, What, Where, When, and Why of Today’s Specialty Food Consumers

    Denise Purcell

    The specialty food industry remains resilient despite three years of upheaval, according to the SFA’s just-released research, Today’s Specialty Food Consumer. Consumers reporting specialty food purchase likelihood hit a record-breaking 76 percent. People continue to care more about what they eat, how it is made, where it comes from, who is making it, and how it impacts local and global communities and the environment. 

    Here, we outline the highlights of the report—the who, what, where, when, and why you need to know about specialty food consumers, their drivers, and motivations.

    Who are they? Millennials and Gen-Xs are the core generations, in part because they have the largest family households. Millennials have seen the biggest gains in specialty food purchase likelihood since 2018. Gen-Z is a rising generation and with most now ages 18+, is equal to Gen-X in specialty food purchase likelihood, at 78 percent. Baby boomers are still engaged but show the least purchase likelihood as they ease out of the workforce.

    What do they buy? Last year’s report noted that the supply chain has growth opportunities with specialty beverages, and the sector could be a gateway for consumers, especially Gen-Zs, to broader usage of specialty products. In 2022, we see this happening in beverages and now in the rise of fresh foods (sandwiches, salads, meals) also. The 10 beverage categories saw an increase in in-store purchase likelihood of 4.2 percent during 2020-2022. That’s compared to 0 percent in the 28 food categories. Gen-Zs and Millennials led the charge here. Fresh foods sold in grocery outlets continue to see big gains. People buying these products in-store rose 10 percent during 2020-2022 to 33 percent of SFCs, while the number of online purchasers doubled to 21 percent of SFCs.

    Where do they shop? We know from SFA’s The State of the Specialty Food Industry report, released in June, that about 86 percent of specialty foods are sold in mainstream outlets, such as grocery stores, mass, club, and discounters. The main change in 2022 is that more of the business has shifted away from grocery stores and natural food stores and towards mass, club, and convenience stores. Online shopping continues to soar. Shopping for groceries online flipped from 33 percent of all consumers in January 2020 to 66 percent in July 2022.

    When do they use specialty foods? Use of specialty foods for dinner peaked in 2019 and fell each year to 2022. Breakfast and lunch usage rebounded in 2022 to equal or exceed the 2019 highs. The fact that there is a net decline in usage at the three major mealtimes while purchases overall have grown substantially is evidence that snacks and treats or “non meals” are picking up the slack. Lifestyle changes are driving the shift and innovations in fresh and convenience products are spurring it on.

    Why do they purchase? The top-five purchase motivators remain consistent over the years: superior quality, superior flavor, interesting/unusual flavors, simple ingredients, and authentic global flavors. An additional one—better for the environment—gained the most ground in recent years and is now bumping up against the top five. SFCs care about attributes like organic, sustainable, and upcycled.

    For more highlights, takeaways, and insights from this year’s report, see the Fall issue of Specialty Food magazine. You can also purchase the full report in the Learning Center on specialtyfood.com.

    SFA Consumer Report_2022_Cover (1).jpg

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