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How grocers can win the breakfast crowd

Consumers favour ease and convenience for the first meal of the day
breakfast sandwich
Breakfast has become more of a “functional” eating occasion, particularly for younger consumers.

Though consumer attitudes towards breakfast have shifted over the years, it’s still widely accepted as the most important meal of the day.

The Hartman Group’s most recent Eating Occasion Compass study found that breakfast remains one of the big three dining occasions. It was consumed a total of 49.9 billion times in the United States in 2022, trailing only lunch (52.1 billion) and dinner (63.3 billion). (In addition to the three main meals, the report divides eating occasions into eight dayparts including early morning snack, mid-morning snack, afternoon snack, after dinner snack and late night-meal snack.)

And more than any other meal occasion, breakfast is stubbornly not tied to factors such as togetherness and socializing, with research showing nearly half of respondents (49%) ate breakfast alone.

Breakfast has become more of a “functional” eating occasion, particularly for younger consumers, explains The Hartman Group’s senior vice-president Shelley Balanko. “It is often consumed alone, and what is eaten tends to be habitual or routine categories such as eggs, coffee and other common breakfast items,” she says. “Breakfast is often hurried, so quick preparation items are important.”

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As an eating occasion, it’s not surprising that breakfast is largely favoured by boomers, for whom the notion of “three square meals a day” was something of a mantra during the establishment of their eating habits. In general, says Balanko, breakfast has been in decline as our food culture becomes more snack oriented.

That’s further supported by Ipsos research, which found that 23% of people skipped breakfast last year, with head of syndicated solutions Asad Amin saying its significance “is on the decline.” The idea of an at-home breakfast is being impacted by the return to work, though, he says, coffee remains a “steadfast anchor” in home consumption habits. 

The pandemic did temporarily upend category norms, with cereal suddenly growing in popularity after being flat to declining (a phenomenon Mintel’s associate director, food and drink Joel Gregoire calls a “phantom bump”).

But, with Mintel research finding that 52% of respondents are back at the office and 25% are working in a hybrid environment – some of the “norms” that defined the category pre-pandemic, such as a renewed emphasis on ease and convenience, are returning.

READ: A look at how Canadians’ coffee habits are evolving

That’s supported by The Hartman Group’s Eating Occasion Compass that found an overwhelming 79% of respondents said when it comes to breakfast, their focus is on getting enough to eat and drink as quickly as possible.

But breakfast is also a category that doesn’t invite much experimentation. According to Mintel, 73% of Canadians say they eat the same thing for breakfast most days, compared to 47% who say they eat the same thing for lunch.

One thing’s for sure, consumers don’t want a fuss when it comes to the morning meal. In Mintel’s research, respondents said their No. 1 priority when it comes to breakfast is products that are easy to prepare (60%), ranking ahead of other attributes such as nutritious and quick to prepare (both 53%).

Innovation around convenience within the category tends to focus on portability, but Gregoire says a recent frozen hash brown product from McCain that requires no flipping to cook evenly, is a perfect example of customer-centric evolution. 

READ: How grocers can satisfy the growing appetite for meal solutions

When customers wake up in the morning, they’re unlikey to be in an adventurous mood when it comes to their food, says Gregoire. “Speed, ease and nutrition are important. If you’re going to innovate, health and convenience matters, but are you going to want to throw a lot of new flavours at people? Probably not,” he says. “If you were to innovate for any food category with different flavours or formats, breakfast is the toughest because of the inherent ties to routine.”

The tendency, though, is towards “tweaks” rather than wholesale changes to how people approach breakfast. Nearly half (46%) of people surveyed by Mintel said rather than eat one big breakfast, they eat smaller items throughout the day. That number rose to 57% among 18- to 34-year-olds, and to 56% among those who work from home.

And the increased – and long overdue – attention being paid to food waste is also bringing about subtle product innovations. “Packaging and food waste are the environmental issues that most concern Canadians when buying food and drink in stores,” says Mintel research. 

This article first appeared in Canadian Grocer’s February 2024 issue.

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