How are Canadians shopping today?

Consumers want more heart-healthy stuff.

It’s been said a gazillion times, but it’s worth repeating once more: We are what we eat.

What we consume permeates virtually every aspect of who we are–our culture and values, our attitudes and behaviour, our time and place. I mention this now, not to simply wax poetic, but to provide context to this year’s “Eating Patterns In Canada” report.

The annual EPIC report, generated by the NPD Group, provides data and insight on how, what, where and when Canadians eat. It’s invaluable to grocers and merchandisers alike, a yearly snapshot of your customers.

So, then, what are we eating? The best answers to this question don’t concern food categories, but rather the people doing the consuming. By understanding the who first, you can then set forth to create merchandising strategies accordingly.

This year’s data clings to a few key hotspots, including: health, millennials and baby boomers, and the growing ethnic market. Let’s begin with health.

Everyone wants to be, and eat, healthy. But increasingly, people are demanding more than “this is good for you” from product manufacturers and merchandisers. They want to know why foods are healthy or “better for you.” As such, it’s important to communicate such benefits to the customer.

Right now, gluten-free seems to be all the rage, with companies trying to position themselves accordingly. But where does this health claim fit within the context of other health-focused attributes?

Of the 25 health attributes shoppers tell us they look for in food, gluten-free ranks, surprisingly, toward the bottom. For most people, gluten-free isn’t that big­­­ a deal. So what’s on top?

Heart-healthy items featuring whole grains, high fibre and low sodium. It makes sense. After all, as our population ages, what else would be the core concern of Canadians, if not their hearts?

But “health” isn’t just about what we put into our stomachs; it’s also when we eat.

While Canadians have the best intentions in the morning, concern around health wanes as the day goes on. It’s why you often hear the phrase “eat a healthy breakfast,” and not the corresponding “eat a healthy supper.”

Speaking of health, the aging baby boomer generation represents the largest demographic cohort in Canadian history. Their sheer size makes them an important target for marketers and grocers.

Millennials (also referred to as generation Y) represent the bump after generation X, with birthdates starting somewhere around the early 1980s. And while much has been written about the differences between boomers and millennials, their eating habits haven’t gotten much attention.

When compared to each other, millennials are a go-go generation and are more likely to be concerned with time and portability. They also want “exciting” new flavours. They’ve grown up in an Internet-enabled world with few boundaries. To them, everything is portable and very much in the now.

By comparison, boomers are more concerned with taste, freshness, the homemade experience and, of course, health. These attributes are indicative of their age and also the experiences they grew up with.

Boomers were more likely to have been raised in a home where Mom cooked dinner every night. Additionally, time is a luxury they now have, along with higher disposable income in many cases. For boomers, food is a central focus of their daily lives.

There are ultimately more similarities than differences between boomers and millennials. But understanding the nuances can mean the difference between strategies that are relevant to each key cohort, and those that don’t resonate.

The same is true with ethnic shoppers; don’t simply place all so-called “ethnic” shoppers or products into one grand category. The best way to reach these shoppers is to first find out how they like to shop and what they shop for. Then, simply provide them with what they want.

Canada is changing and so is grocery. What we eat tells us where we’re heading. Don’t get lost.

Joel Gregoire is the food and beverage industry analyst at the NPD Group in Toronto

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