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Let's do lunch (column)

From office workers to millennials, there's lots of room to grow lunch sales

Kathy Perrotta is vice-president at Ipsos Reid in Toronto. Perrotta (pictured) contributed this column about lunch trends to Canadian Grocer's March/April issue.

Within many of the world’s cultures, lunch is the most important meal of the day. It’s a time to share a dish with friends and family, or bask in quiet solitude with a favourite meal and a book; a short reprieve that leaves us refreshed and ready to face the afternoon.

In Canada, lunch isn’t nearly so quaint. Not only is it the most skipped meal of the day, but when Canadians do eat lunch, it often involves hurried words like “drive thru,” “microwave” or “convenience.” Has lunch lost its lustre?

On the surface, yes. But, in fact, lunch in Canada is merely changing to match how people live and work. At Ipsos Reid, we recently took a deep dive into lunch. Our 2014 CHATS (Consumption Habits and Attitudinal Trends Study) examined the eating habits of 20,000 Canadians across all meal occasions. What we found is that Canadians are indeed doing lunch. Thirteen per cent of all food items consumed during the day are at lunch, which means it’s an important part of the day, and your sales.

Better yet, there are still gains to be had from lunch. Merely getting more lunch skippers to eat could result in higher sales. So could giving shoppers more portable food options. The reason? More than 25% of lunch occasions are carried from home.

Bear in mind that lunch can have multiple personalities. It depends on whether consumers are eating alone or with others, whether it’s a weekday or weekend, or whether they’re eating at home or away. In addition, varying needs, preferences and emotions drive lunch decisions. More than 50% of weekday lunches, for instance, are consumed alone, with many adults reporting eating al desko due to a lack of time.

Lunch, however, is the meal most often eaten away from home and, as such, remains crucial for away-from-home channels. Grocers have a unique opportunity to provide good-for-you solutions through the burgeoning HMR channel. However, their offering must be extra sharp to grab share from affordable bagged lunches, convenient leftovers and delicious restaurant favourites. Six per cent of lunches are now through HMR.

Interestingly, consumers today are willing to make compromises at lunch. At times they may opt to give up on taste and healthy foods in exchange for speed and convenience, or vice versa. Perhaps it’s this trade-off that enables the sandwich to remain a perennial lunch favourite. Though it’s true the sandwich of today does not look like it did 30 years ago, it is still the top item eaten at lunch, followed by fruit, cheese and vegetables. Among beverages consumed at lunch, tap water is the runaway favourite, perhaps due to its convenience, healthfulness and, oh yes, its inexpensive price.

When we look at the foods chosen for lunch, Canadians are opting for lighter fare. The result: lunch is more of a gap-fill than a gut-fill meal. The considerable grazing that occurs in the morning–as consumers fuel up early in the day, leaving them less hungry when lunchtime rolls around–likely causes that trend.

Lunch today is also impacted by mini- meal consumption. Rather than eat three square meals a day, many people now eat five to six smaller meals. Such behaviour is especially popular among 18- to 34-year- olds. These millennials report that eating smaller meals more frequently keeps their energy levels up and eliminates the peaks and troughs that come with eating larger meals. They also feel it improves mental sharpness and fits with weight-loss diets.

So it appears that Canadians have not lost the art of lunching but, rather, are redefining it to fit their lives. To gain a greater share of lunch, it’s critical to understand how Canadians experience the meal. The ultimate goal for retailers and CPGs: move beyond product seller to become the go-to lunch solution provider.

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