In the next decade, a number of significant demographic changes will offer the food industry a series of new and exciting consumer markets and targets. For the most part, however, they will be unattainable by simply tweaking existing offerings and will force food marketers to focus on developing new highly targeted products, reassessing their consumer product criteria and creating contemporary campaigns to capitalize on these large and lucrative emerging market segments.

CONSUMER TRENDSIt’s no surprise that the “average” consumer/shopper will be older: In fact, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median age will increase from 35.8 years to 37.4 in 2010 and the mean age from 36.5 to 37.9, and 118 million Americans will be age 45 or older vs 86 million today. But what is most important is that the nation’s 78 million aging “Baby Boomers”—whose large numbers and longer life expectancies will enable them to dominate the market for the next 25 years—are having a dramatic influence on redefining customer needs, markets and food product criteria. With just under half of Boomers describing themselves as “Foodies,” food marketers may buy in for the ride of their life!

Without a doubt, the most important “demo memo” for the food industry is that the Empty Nesters—married couples without kids under 18—are now the dominant household unit in the U.S. and will represent nearly one-third of all households by 2010, 5.3 million more households than today. Empty Nesters are among those most likely to prepare food in the home and those least likely to use take-out meals. They are also more likely to spend more time preparing dinner. For the first time in a long time, they are selecting foods for themselves rather than trying to “please the kids” and have the time and income to dine at higher-end restaurants more frequently. Desiring to do more fun things with their time and burnt out from cooking, these restaurant-spoiled sophisticates can become prime users of creative convenience foods, but they will demand more provocative culinary-directed, restaurant-quality, and often healthier fare.

Singleness is also on the rise, and food marketers would do well to also focus on single-serving sizes. In fact, single-person households, currently virtually tied with married couples with kids under 18 as the second largest household segment, will increase 12%, or 5.5 million households, by 2010, while family households will remain flat. Female (up 13.9%) vs male (up 9.4%) single households will be slightly more common.

Women will continue to have the most influence on food purchase decisions. According to the NPD Group, 79% still plan, 77% prepare, 76% shop, and 71% clean up after household meals—but, in general, they will be older, and purchase selection will reflect their health and lifestyle concerns. The number of women age 45–54 will increase 25% and those 55–64, 53%. Conversely, those aged 35–44, a familiar food target, will fall 13%. Women age 35+ will increase from 74.4% of all women in 2000 to 83.3% in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Young adults age 16–24 will also represent an explosive niche. They are big fast-food fans and also eat out frequently with families, giving a much needed boost to the quick-service restaurant industry. This group not only rarely cooks, but also doesn’t really know how to cook. Although they were weaned on fast food, these consumers will most likely suffer from budget constraints and to some extent turn to in-home mini-meals and snack items purchased by themselves or their parents. Foodservice brands translated into retail products—like the current line of T.G.I. Friday’s appetizers—should be very appealing to these new customers. It is important to note that young adults are one of the most time-pressured groups. Nearly 7 in 10 feel somewhat/extremely stressed, and half of those age 18–24 said they couldn’t take a vacation this year because of demands on their time according to the Travel Industry Association of America.

While the number of school-age kids will stay relatively flat and start declining later in the decade, they will become more important to food marketers because of increasing influence on product purchase selection and growing participation in meal and snack preparation. More than one in three family cooks report that children always or often dominate dinner grocery decisions; 75% snacks, 72% breakfast, 62% lunch, and 47% dessert according to the National Pork Producers Council. In the 1999 Yankelovich Youth Monitor Survey, half of kids 6–11 counted making their meals among activities they do around the house, up from 40% in 1995.

With the population glut of Boomers entering their prime earning years, the level of disposable income will remain strong, and food prices—at least in the short term—are expected to remain stable. The economic downturn should inspire a resurgence of at-home food preparation and dining, culinary sophistications should continue to increase, and new markets will evolve. It will be a very good time for food!

Contributing Editor