About 830,000 people bought the Marks & Spencer “Valentine’s Day £20 ($30) Meal Deal for Two” which was comprised of coquilles St. Jacques, Beef Wellington, a side of vegetables, profiteroles for dessert, a box of fancy chocolates and a bottle of Cava.
M&S has long seen restaurants and take aways as direct competitors for market share of your stomach. Thirty years ago, M&S was the first to put packaged sandwiches in its stores.
Now, M&S, Tesco the UK’s largest supermarket chain and Boots, the pharmacist, vie with Subway to be the leading vendors of lunch, offering a panoply of traditional triangular sarnies, subs, hoagies, wraps, etc.
You have to study up to order a sandwich without social embarrassment: “Will that be on rye/sourdough/gluten-free, plain/toasted with mayo/butter, Dijon/English mustard, radish/alfalfa sprouts …?”. For goodness sake, I only want a cheese sandwich! “Will that be Cheddar/Old Amsterdam/Munster …”
Buying food and making meals used to be a simple affair. Grocery stores sold ingredients. We’d take them home, make a particular dish and, then, sit down as a family to eat and chat about the day.
But the time available for in-home meal preparation has been squeezed from two hours in the 1950s to 20 minutes in 2015. Now, we are more likely to buy “meal components,” bagged stir fry veggies, chicken strips and, then, assemble them into a meal. Or buy a ready meal, a pizza or microwaveable lasagna.
The decision “what’s for dinner?” may well be taken mid-afternoon, and there follows febrile phone negotiations on who is closest to a store/has more time and inclination to tussle with other peevish grocery shoppers in that frenetic 4-6 pm “food gathering for the family” period.
Trends in household structure are influential in how and where we eat: 65 per cent of UK households comprise one or two persons and they are much more likely to eat out or order in than the nuclear family. We top the European ready meal league: 30 per cent of adult Britons eat a “ready to heat” meal more than once a week, four times that of Italy (microwaves are in every UK kitchen, whereas they are relatively rare in Italy).
In Holland and the UK, “Metro” stores are close to train stations so that commuters can grab a meal (not a basket of ingredients) to take home. In an increasingly competitive grocery retail environment, supermarkets see the provision of meals rather than ingredients as a clear opportunity for growth. Whole Foods Market is a good example—is it a supermarket or a comfortable place to snack, graze, have lunch or pick up dinner? In Japan, 7-11 is a convenient meal and snack chain, changing its products through the day to cater for customers’ breakfast, lunch and dinner needs.
In 1970, 20 per cent of US food expenditure was spent on meals/snacks outside the home. By 2014 it was 48 per cent. The trend has been similar in Northern Europe. But, could this be its peak as supermarket food shopping and eating out converge?
Restaurants are fighting back:
- increasingly, on-line ordering “food-to-go” is offered by posh and family restaurant chains, not just pizza and other fast food outlets;
- in the US, grubHub and the UK roomservice connect would-be diners with their local restaurants. You order on line and can elect to have the meal delivered or go and pick it up;
- the likes of Google Express, Amazon Prime, Instacart deliver restaurant meals. Surely, Uber will be in this business, too? Drone/driverless car delivery is here or very close and this will reduce costs and raise service levels for meal and grocery deliveries.
The increasing competition between food retailers and restaurants is good news for consumers. Businesses that offer better quality, service, convenience, variety and keener prices will, as ever, survive and prosper.