July 3/New York/Convenience Store News-- The entire traditional food-industry value chain is likely to undergo enormous transformation over the next few years due to changing consumer demographics, at least according to "Trouble in Aisle 5," a new joint study by global investment bank Jefferies and global advisory firm AlixPartners. The study, which surveyed 2,000 consumers in May, finds a confluence of factors appear poised to rapidly transform the food-at-home industry.

Changing demographics, economic factors and customer preferences may create a long-term disruption across the food-industry value chain that will transform where and how consumers shop for groceries, as well as what products they choose.

The root cause of the impending transformation lies in changing demographics. Over the next decade, the baton will be passed from one mega-generation to another as "Millennials" (born between 1982-2001) come of age and "Baby Boomers" (born between 1946-1964) enter the next phase of their lives and spending patterns. As a result, established food brands and traditional grocery stores will be pressured at both ends by sets of consumers with very different value equations.

"Millennials clearly present significant challenges, and food makers and traditional grocery retailers need to start making changes now to address the emerging needs of this demographic group, as in many ways we're just in the second inning of this ball game," said Scott Mushkin, managing director and senior equity research analyst for food and drug retailing and packaged food at Jefferies.

The new joint study found that Millennials are much more open to branching out from traditional grocery stores to other channels such as convenience stores.

Based on the most recent projections by the U.S. Census Bureau, Millennials over the age of 25 (the age at which income and household formation typically start to really accelerate) will make up roughly 19% of the U.S. population by 2020, up from just over 5% in 2010. These 64 million Millennials will see a significant spending-power increase in the coming years, as the median income for those households is expected to jump to more than $45,000 from just over $28,000. In fact, the study shows that food-at-home spending by Millennials is set to jump by $50 billion annually through 2020.

By contrast, the Baby Boomer generation, which has had an outsized influence on consumer trends for decades, will fall to below 20% of the U.S. population in the next eight years. Baby boomers are also set to move out of their peak earnings years into retirement and will be more reliant on fixed incomes by 2016. Thus, their focus will undoubtedly turn further toward lifestyle preservation. Overall, at-home food spending by Boomers could fall by as much as $15 billion per year through 2020.

The study revealed that Millennials have strikingly different attitudes toward consumption than their Baby Boomer parents and grandparents, which will put great pressure on the traditional model of homogeneous brands provided by traditional grocery retailers.

"The at-home food industry is just beginning to feel the impact of this major demographic shift, as Millennials rise in prominence and Baby Boomers adjust to meet the requirements of age and a fixed income," Mushkin said. "The bottom line for food-at-home industry stalwarts is that big changes are coming, and companies that don't fully understand those changes risk being marginalized."

David Garfield, managing director at AlixPartners and head of the firm's consumer products practice, added, "Convenience is king with Millennials: they expect to get what they want, when and where they want it, and they know they have options for both products and retailers. The emphasis on convenience represents a dramatic shift from Baby Boomers' priorities, and it also presents big challenges -- and opportunities -- for companies in the food industry."

Tied to the group's focus on convenience, Millennials are much less loyal to both food brands and traditional grocery stores and much more willing to explore different distribution models (online shopping, smartphone shopping, delivery services, etc.) and spread their shopping across different brands and channels (mass merchants, club stores, drugstores, convenience stores, online, etc.) to fulfill their consumable needs.

Of the Millennials surveyed, 47% stated brands were "extremely" or "somewhat" important in their purchasing decision for groceries, compared to 61% of Baby Boomers (a 23% decrease). Similarly, only 41% of Millennials' total food spending is at traditional grocers, compared to 50% of Baby Boomers' total food spending (an 18% decrease).

Millennials are also more price-sensitive than Baby Boomers, and the study found that their income has a dramatic effect on buying behavior. Among Millennials earning less than $20,000 per year, price is far and away the most important attribute impacting purchase decisions, with 75% at this income level citing price as "extremely important."

As income rises, attributes such as product quality, healthy and natural/organic increase in importance. Broadly, the study also found that Millennials require a smaller discount to purchase private-label products.

While Millennials are more price sensitive than Baby Boomers, they are willing to pay more for the specific attributes they value: convenience, freshness, health, variety (of flavors, international/ethnic cuisines, product sizes, etc.) and natural/organic. When it comes to natural/organic products, for example, 58% of Millennials surveyed said they are willing to pay more for natural/organic products, compared to only 43% of Baby Boomers who said the same.

Jefferies and AlixPartners see "fresh and healthy" -- a priority area for both Millennials and Baby Boomers -- as a key area of opportunity for both traditional grocers and branded food makers. For instance, despite the younger generation's greater acceptance of mass merchants, drugstores and online vendors for everyday essentials, more than 80% of those surveyed continue to shop traditional grocery stores for fresh products.

Overall, the study sees a more demanding environment across the entire food-industry value chain. For food companies, there will be greater pressure to deliver more for less -- fresher, higher-quality product, with more choices and more convenience in a shopping environment where consumers are becoming less brand loyal and more inclined to shop across channels. This will require food companies to be more nimble, with more innovative product development, leaner supply chains and more effective use of marketing initiatives, according to the study's authors. For traditional grocers, there appears to be a need to redefine their model, focusing on perishables while engaging or re-engaging customers in the center store.

While Millennials have yet to lock in their preferences for a lifetime, they are clearly much less loyal than their forebears to the "one-stop-shop" supermarket format, creating significant obstacles for traditional retailers. However, trouble for the grocery store looks to be a boon for specialty retailers, mass merchants, club stores and even online purveyors of everyday items, the study said. 

From the July 3, 2012, Prepared Foods Daily News