Prior to the pandemic, centre store was in a precarious state as customers moved to the perimeter and its promise of fresher, healthier food. Today, with costs for fresh meat and produce skyrocketing, and many shoppers still not fully recovered from pandemic-induced “kitchen fatigue,” centre store has come roaring back.
“Shoppers are rediscovering the centre aisle,” says Jo-Ann McArthur, president of Toronto’s Nourish Food Marketing. She cites multiple reasons for customers’ return: A combination of the rise in hybrid working and tight budgets leading to an increased focus on breakfast and lunch at home; an “elevated” coffee and tea offering; and the resurgence of the cereal aisle.
READ: As more consumers prioritize health and wellness, grocers step up their offerings
One of the keys to maintaining that momentum is overcoming the consumer perception that shelf-stable food options are less healthy and more artificial than their fresh counterparts, says McArthur. “As shoppers rediscover these aisles, it would make sense to surprise them with options that check these boxes,” she says. “[It’s] similar to how frozen foods upgraded their offerings in advance of millennials discovering [them] and hence driving sales growth.”
While the perimeter is where grocers can differentiate themselves from their competitors, centre store has historically been where shoppers go in search of savings and everyday low prices, says Joel Gregoire, associate director, food and drink at Mintel. Those characteristics count for a lot during inflationary times.
According to Mintel’s research, for instance, snack foods, frozen meals and cooking sauces/condiments topped the list for Canadians when asked which categories they’d be most willing to sacrifice quality for savings – far ahead of fresh food categories such as bakery and produce.
READ: Canadians cooking at home to save on groceries
Trends that have been a hallmark of the perimeter, such as a focus on organic and non-GMO products, are also making their way to the centre store with the rise of dedicated health food aisles or sections devoted to vegan diets, says Liam O’Connell, general manager of Envirosell, a New York-based retail research and consulting firm that counts Longo’s, Real Canadian Superstore, Save-On-Foods and Fresh St. Market among its Canadian clients.
For example, adding to its growing line of plant-based products, Hellmann’s recently launched three salad dressings – Vegan Ranch, Vegan Caesar and Vegan Green Goddess – that are certified vegan and made in Canada.
Centre store also holds the potential to keep customers’ pantries stocked with the protein-packed products they’re looking for, including RXBAR’s new Vanilla Almond protein bar, which is minimally processed with no added sugar and 12 grams of protein, and Rio Mare’s ready-to-eat tuna salads made with prime quality tuna, vegetables and grains, containing 18 grams of protein and five to eight grams of fibre.
Canadian Grocer spoke with experts across the grocery sector for ideas on how to keep shoppers coming back to centre store. Here’s what they had to say:
When they go high, you go low
For a long time, traditional grocery store orthodoxy has been that the longer grocers can keep people in a store, the more they’ll buy. But, O’Connell says Envirosell’s research suggests that’s not true.
“Customers are much more interested in being able to find what they want and getting out,” he says. “If they want to get lost in the grocery store that’s great, but it’s not the behaviour we’re seeing.”
O’Connell says grocers can help maximize efficiency by not only using lower shelves to help improve sightlines, but also by reducing the number of SKUs they offer in a category.
READ: Store layout can motivate shoppers to buy healthier foods
Reducing shelf height can make a store feel more open and easier to navigate and explore, says O’Connell. Shoppers can see the hanging signs one aisle over, for example, and know if they need to purchase anything down that aisle.
Culling the number of SKUs, meanwhile, can help shoppers find the item they want without being impacted by the tyranny of choice. “It’s easier and more productive for a customer to shop, and more productive for grocers themselves when you don’t have to stack 50 different types of batteries that only come in packs of four, eight and 16.”
Help customers solve the eternal question
One of the significant effects of COVID lockdowns was turning consumers into what McArthur calls “more confident cooks.” Some of those effects have carried over into the post-pandemic period, with Nourish saying hybrid working patterns also mean that 54% of full-time employees are dedicating more time to cooking healthy dinners.
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Grocers can win by helping customers solve the daily “What’s for dinner” question, she says. That can be achieved by a variety of tactics, including end-cap displays grouping value meal ingredients such as pasta, rice and legumes with sauces/seasonings and perhaps an easy recipe. Grocers could further drive purchase by sampling the finished meal.
Interrupt centre-aisle “freeways”
One of the hallmarks of modern grocery stores is centre aisles that seem to stretch into infinity, presenting shoppers with an almost monolithic display of cereals, pastas, soups, etc.
Some grocers have begun experimenting with the form factor of these aisles, by strategically placing displays/items that break up the space – such as a cooler featuring fresh ravioli in the middle of the pasta section.
READ: How retailers and producers can boost meat sales
It’s a tactic that interrupts what shoppers expect to see and can encourage them to stop and consider an item. It’s an approach that’s been employed to great effect by retailers like Trader Joe’s, says O’Connell.
“If there’s something that can be done structurally that helps highlight the products that are sitting there, that’s where we see a lot of success with inter-aisle displays,” he says.
Make it better, but don’t forget the value
According to Quaker Canada, the breakfast category is moving towards a “better-for-you” positioning, with a renewed focus on high fibre and protein, in response to consumer demands.
But customers are increasingly focused on value, which at the heart of decision-making is about more than simply what a product costs.
READ: Give your back-to-school sales a boost
Quaker suggests breakfast brands focus on showcasing the versatility of their products, while providing larger pack sizes and an increased emphasis on flavour, something it’s doing with multi-flavour variety packs and family-sized products.
Understanding that Canadians care about nutrition, but also crave the occasional indulgence, Kellogg Canada launched Maple Cinnamon Frosted Flakes Cereal earlier this year that it’s billing not only as a breakfast food complete with six vitamins and minerals, but also as an evening snack. Also new to the company’s cereal lineup is Special K Cinnamon Pecan, which is both a tasty treat and a high-fibre breakfast option and a source of 10 vitamins and minerals.
Private label, your label for money
Mintel’s Gregoire says the centre store is an ideal location for grocers to compete on price, using private-label products that offer an enticing combination of quality and competitive pricing.
These products can be supported by signage that goes beyond informing consumers of what they can find in the centre aisles, but also how they can save and lower their bill. “[It] can be an impactful way to attract feet and carts to this area of the store,” he says.
READ: Amid high inflation and supply chain issues, private label powers up
“Ultimately, the opportunity is to give shoppers a clear reason to come to the centre of the store beyond just getting products that are typically on one’s grocery list, but make the centre of the store a destination for savings or an opportunity to elevate eating and cooking experiences,” suggests Gregoire.
This article first appeared in Canadian Grocer’s June/July 2023 issue.