Security Vs. Convenience

“What does a woman want?” This is surely Freud’s most famous question and the one he has been most criticized for asking. Yet in the food industry, where women still do most of the shopping, it is a question that must be asked.

The conventional wisdom goes something like this: with tremendous numbers of women now in the workforce, time is at a premium. For the food industry, this means a boom in timesaving services, from restaurants to prepared meals.

In a sense, one might say that this simple thought is behind the home meal replacement movement. Home meal replacement, however, hasn’t exactly been a money tree these last few years. Boston Market, the birthplace of the term, struggles under the protection of a bankruptcy court, and there has been at least figurative blood in the corridors of more than one supermarket chain as these chains have wrestled with the losses many of the HMR initiatives have exhibited.

The critique, though, has to date focused on execution – supermarkets weren’t delivering restaurant quality food, employees weren’t trained to meet consumer needs, etc. The implication has been that if we just do it better, we can eventually get it right and increase sales and profits. Perhaps, though, the problem is not execution; it is in the very premise on which we operate.

It is certainly true that there are more women in the workforce than before, but this could just as well be explained as a symptom of a time surplus. After all, with fewer children being born to the average family and with many more laborsaving devices available, more women may enter the workforce because they have time available.

Perhaps, though, women have other motivations.

The surprising thing is how little money second incomes bring into a family. If you are interested in the subject, visit this website: The site provides a dandy personalized calculator that enables you to determine what a family gains financially by adding a second working spouse.

Though your results depend on the numbers you put in – how far a commute, how much for daycare, etc. – the gist of the matter is that for a couple that has to put children in paid daycare, the second income doesn’t add much. So, for example, a family needing to put two children in daycare that has a primary earner bringing in $60,000 a year and a secondary earner bringing in $50,000 a year will net only $5,000 from that second income.

A big chunk is lost to taxes. Daycare is expensive, and the miscellaneous costs of having a job, from commuting costs to clothes to food to the contributions to office birthday parties, eat away much of the rest.

It is likely that the calculator actually underestimates the cost of a second working spouse for a typical family. Although it considers the direct cost of someone working, it doesn’t consider how having two working spouses increases other household costs. Homemakers often perceive themselves as important custodians of the family budget.

Whether it is clipping coupons or driving out of the way to find a cheaper dry cleaner, household budgets are often very favorably impacted by having a person dedicated to the task of living well less expensively. Full-time workers may have neither the time nor the inclination to cut costs in these myriads of ways, thinking that they make their contribution to the family budget through their paycheck.

The logical consequence of all this is startling. If everyone, and particularly women, are time-starved, these numbers indicate that they could easily quit their jobs at very little financial costs to the family.

This being the case, we have to ask why it doesn’t happen. It may be cultural. With two generations of Women’s Lib ideology being prominent, many would say that the culture just doesn’t support the stay-at-home Mom in the way it once did. Anecdotally, there seems to be something here. There are many stories of women being a bit sheepish about being “just a housewife.”

Of course, there may be more practical motivations. Although a woman’s income may often not add a great deal to the family’s budget, it is her income. With no-fault divorce, the rule rather than the exception, women may feel the need to maintain economic independence lest the man seek a divorce and leave his wife in a difficult situation.

If these thoughts are what drive women into the workforce, what we are experiencing is a yearning for security. Security that, in these examples, the woman will be well thought of socially and secure financially.

Now it is possible that women may be motivated into the workforce for security reasons and still be motivated to buy HMR products for timesaving reasons. But it is also possible that this search for security carries over into food choice.

If what women most want is security, perhaps the supermarket model of doing business – putting a bunch of stuff of widely differing quality on display and letting consumers make all the choices – is not what women want.

Perhaps they want the security of knowing an expert has selected what is good. Restaurants, almost by nature, specialize in the idea of a chef, or a menu-planning department, selecting what is good. So the growth in restaurant meals is completely consistent with the idea that women want the security of knowing that what they buy is good.

There are always individual preferences – some folks hate chicken and others love beef – but how many retailers are really willing to stand behind all their HMR offerings in terms of taste and quality? Good chefs will feel proud of every dish on the menu. How many deli directors would feel the same confidence in their offerings?