retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kate McMahon

"Kate's Take" is brought to you by Wholesome Sweeteners, Making The World a Sweeter Place.

“Hey, Mom, I’ll make dinner tonight...”

There’s a new world order in my kitchen, and with it a 24-7 window on the shopping and dining habits of the Millennial Generation. This much I can tell you. They can be fickle, want their food fresh and fast, and are never without their smart phone.

My 21-year-old daughter Mara graduated from college last month and, like many of her peers, has returned to the nest to save up for an apartment. Happily, she learned to shop on a budget and cook last year sharing a house with four roommates. (Full disclosure: She had previously put a frozen pizza in the oven with cardboard on the bottom. Where there’s smoke…)

We’re two weeks in and already I’m seeing confirmation of what research has told us about Millennials (current age 18-35). They are highly connected and price savvy, health-conscious and attuned to environmental concerns, and have little traditional brand loyalty.

A recent Mintel study found that Millennials buy only 41 percent of their food at traditional grocery stores - compared to 50 percent of Baby Boomers – as they also shop online, at specialty retailers and farmer’s markets or co-ops. In Lewisburg, PA, Mara shopped at Walmart and an impressive Weis Supermarket – the nearby organic farm was too pricey.

And since it came of age in both the recession and the “showrooming” era, this group can execute an immediate price comparison with two taps on an omni-present smart phone. An online survey showed that among young adults ages 18 to 34, 60 percent will choose a lower-priced item over their usual brand if it will save them money, hence the term “brand-agnostic.”

The new cook in my kitchen is a fan of the Food Network and Master Chef – always available on Hulu or demand TV - and bookmarks favorite recipes on her iPhone, which doubles as her shopping list and recipe card. Like many aging boomers, I still have cookbooks and need a much bigger font size to read a recipe. Mara recently prepared a Honey-Soy-Citrus chicken with roasted sugar snap peas, a quinoa salad with corn, cucumber and edamame, and grilled salmon with a mélange of vegetables. I was stunned when my formerly plain-pasta child told me a dash of chili powder enhanced the flavor of roasted Brussels sprouts.

(A side note on quinoa: Her college dining hall featured an assemble-your-own quinoa salad bar, along with a traditional salad bar, a stir fry station, gluten-free and vegan stations, and on Monday nights a gourmet mac-and-cheese bar. All fresh and fast nothing like the steam table Salisbury steak/lumpy mashed potatoes that exemplified 1970s college cafeteria fare.)

Admittedly, my kitchen view is limited to one recent graduate readying to enter the real world. The clear challenge in marketing to Millennials is the sweeping size and range of this group – in both age and income.

It’s worth noting that by 2016, Millennials will have the highest discretionary income in the US, and by 2020, there will be 64.1 million Millennials over the age of 25, a whopping increase from just 17.1 million in 2010.

Retailers who expect this next generation of shoppers to be like the baby boomers but with faster internet are kidding themselves. This is the most connected group in history. The are going to be so much more discerning than us, with more knowledge, more biases (in a good way) and tolerance, more savvy and with greater expectations. Filling their shopping baskets is going to be an enormous challenge.

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