What Consumers Won’t Sacrifice For Convenience Food — How Do We Define Convenience?

What Consumers Won’t Sacrifice For Convenience Food

by Emily Lohfink, Signal Theory

May 2019 – In a world of “now,” convenience has become an expectation of daily life. Technology has put the entire world at our fingertips, making convenience a right, not a privilege, in the eyes of consumers.

This has changed the definition of convenience within the food industry and, subsequently, food brands have evolved, creating a great deal of competition in innovation, functionality and choice. As convenience foods have become more prevalent and plentiful, it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish ‘convenience’ food from ‘regular’ food.

Consumers, however, are not just looking for ways to save time. Their needs and expectations have evolved far beyond that, and “compromise” has become a dirty word. To them, some things (such as quality, healthy eating and certain dietary requirements) are not worth sacrificing for the sake of convenience alone and, luckily, some brands have struck the perfect balance.

Here’s a look at four things consumers don’t want to sacrifice when buying convenience food:


  1. Quality

According to data from FoodThink from Signal Theory, a Kansas City-based development, marketing and design firm, 78 percent of consumers say convenience shouldn’t mean they have to sacrifice quality.

Consumers have a strong expectation of freshness and quality from their food, and convenience food is no exception. Luckily, gone are the days when convenience food was synonymous with nothing more than a microwaveable meal for one.

Today’s convenience food often means beautifully fresh, high-quality ingredients together with flexible packaging solutions. Charcuterie-style snacks, decadent desserts and artisanal pizzas all can be found in “convenient” solutions  — a far cry from the images of dehydrated TV dinners that “convenience” often conjurs.

  1. Health

Seventy percent of consumers say they are trying to eat healthier. Many look to convenience to make healthy food easier to buy and cook. Convenience options within fresh meat and produce have made healthy mealtimes more accessible — items that are precooked, pre-marinated, pre-sliced, diced or cubed reduce the time that comes with selecting and preparing meat and produce.

Healthy snacking products, in particular, are relevant to today’s consumers as 81 percent of Americans snack at least once a day, but almost half (44 percent) say their definition of a snack has evolved. Although past consumers equated snacks to nothing more than junk food, today’s consumers have a broader definition. Some see snacking as a key to maintaining a healthy diet, with a “little and often” approach to meals, which means that health is as important in snacking as it is at mealtimes.

  1. Specialty Diets

Paleo, keto, raw, vegetarian, vegan, organic, low-carb, high-protein, low-fat, gluten-free and non-dairy — the list of specialty diets goes on and on. Half of North Americans say they follow a special diet. Special diets are becoming increasingly accommodated, both in and out of the home. In everything from home baking to energy bars, the luxury of convenience is not reserved for those of us lucky enough to be free of food intolerances.

  1. Actually Cooking

Feeling connected to the creation of a meal remains important to many consumers — 41 percent feel guilty when they don’t cook for their family. This number increases to 58 percent of parents. This can create a barrier between them and convenience food if they think they are “cheating” too much.

Back in the 1950s, General Mills famously reformulated their Betty Crocker cake mixes so that consumers had to add an egg themselves (rather than just adding water to the all-powdered ingredients). Until then, consumers had rejected the product because they felt guilty for getting credit for baking they hadn’t done. For today’s consumers, the need to feel connected to one’s food remains.

Again, foods that have been pre-prepared but not necessarily pre-cooked can be a huge help to this group because the act of cooking remains with consumers. Products such as stir-fry and salad kits keep consumers in control and connected to the cooking, but with a little help.

Convenience food has come a long way, with many of today’s brands reclaiming it from some of its less healthy predecessors. Most important, these brands are confirming to consumers that they do not need to sacrifice quality, health, diet or cooking for convenience. CPG food brands need to continue down this convenience path because one thing’s for sure  — consumers won’t go back to life without it.


How Do We Define Convenience?

by Jim Prevor, Editor-in-Chief, Produce Business

The whole definition of convenience is always evolving. A few generations back, if you wanted a chicken you had to go in the back and kill one; jump ahead and a butcher provided a whole chicken defeathered and cleaned. Ahead a few more generations, and there was no need for a separate trip to the butcher — you could buy a sectioned chicken at the supermarket where you were shopping anyway. Today, the Buffalo wings will come already breaded and flavored to taste, and they will come delivered to your house. It is a continuing path of convenience not necessarily defined by the food as much as by where and how one accesses the food.

It is important to understand the real life tradeoffs between consumer aspirations around quality and the exigencies of budget, time shortage and other factors. That 78% of consumers in this study say convenience shouldn’t mean they have to sacrifice quality is aspirational. It is what consumers hope for. But, in fact, if consumers have set an ante on purchases — that they must meet a certain quality level or they won’t buy — it seems likely this level is not at the level of maximal quality.

McDonald’s is the biggest restaurant chain in the world. One can easily see why — consistent quality and cleanliness, convenient locations and service with reasonable speed at an economical price. Many would say that the quality at, say, Shake Shack, is better, yet executives at the company think there might be potential for 450 units in the United States as opposed to more than 14,000 McDonald’s. This is fairly strong evidence consumers make trade-offs against quality all the time.

One of the things to be wary of is the bifurcation in consumer purchasing behavior. Yes, there is a portion of consumers willing and able to pay more for convenience and quality and health — to actuate the aspirations expressed in this study. But for many consumers, they have to choose, and if sacrificing some quality means being able to pay the mortgage or being able to save money to take the kids on a trip to Disneyland once in their lives, the issue switches from aspiration to priorities. That is why McDonald’s sells a lot more food than Shake Shack.

When it comes to the produce industry, there is a need to confront quality issues: There is great inconsistency and unpredictability of taste. You can buy a clamshell of blueberries, and they can be sweet or bitter. One can buy a peach, and it can be luscious or taste like cardboard; that fresh-cut melon seems convenient, but if no minimum brix level is set, no taste tests done, then, it is not very convenient if your breakfast is tasteless.

The definition of quality is also unclear. Taste and flavor to be sure — but what about shelf life? If the open bag of fresh-cut lettuce or peeled apples won’t last as long as consumer expectations — is that quality?

Convenience also relates to package size and type. With household sizes on the decline, has the industry done a good job of making items convenient?  We have seen, for example, single-serve packages of blueberries — Naturipe developed them for McDonald’s — but are these actually available to consumers in retail stores?

Health is another issue with unclear definitions. When 70 percent of consumers in this study say they are trying to eat healthier — yet obesity continues to grow apace — what does this healthy quest mean? Consumers are committing to eat more dark chocolate?

Certainly, the produce industry has benefited from the attention to health. We know sales of individual items, such as blueberries, pomegranates and kale, have all grown from associations with health-oriented associations. There is little evidence, though, that health marketing has done anything to boost produce consumption. It seems as if a consumer, having heard of health benefits, might switch from a spinach salad to one with kale — but there is little evidence consumers who were planning to get a steak now move to a kale salad.

Specialty diets have enormous power — if people actually follow them. There is a lot of evidence that people who claim to be vegetarian or, even, vegan, are — except for when they are not. The low-carb or keto diets also can make it hard to sell items such as potatoes and fruit.

There is no question that, in surveys, people express the desire to cook for their families and can feel guilty when they don’t. The Betty Crocker story ties in with products, such as Hamburger Helper, in which marketers understand there is a place for making mothers feel engaged and important. But, it is worth noting that, for the most part, what people do in response to feeling guilty about not cooking is to accept their feelings of guilt. Sure, in some affluent families, someone may quit his or her job to be a full time stay-at-home parent and cook more.

It is certainly a good idea for the produce industry to make items available that are cleaned, peeled and cut so consumers will find cooking with produce easier. If we can keep quality high, that can only be a plus. Smaller package sizes can help here too, so that cooking with produce is not associated with so much waste.

This author has a couple of teenage boys. They define convenience as having a Delivery Dudes app on their phones tied to their Dad’s credit card. I can’t help but think that making cooking easier may be a plus, but it may not be the future the produce industry needs.