Convenient food is often characterised as low-quality or unhealthy, but these criticisms miss the point. Convenient food bypasses barriers to entry to attend to consumers’ emotional demands rather than nutritional demands. Ultimately, companies should do more to market these advantages of their products, targeting consumers not only through their wallets but through their emotions.
Consumers are regularly told about the negative associations with convenient foods. They are told by pundits that it is cheaper (although it is not always) and that it is generally less healthy. Governments have tried to increase transparency and ‘nudge’ consumers with packaging rules that make the nutritional content more obvious and, in theory, encourage the consumer to cook from scratch.
The drawbacks of avoiding convenient food are rarely talked about.
Barriers to entry
If you are used to cooking from scratch, it is easy to forget that cooking meals at home has some significant barriers to entry such as a working oven, pans, oils, workspace and utensils. For many people, convenience-focused food allows them to bypass many of these barriers. If a consumer has low wages or low hours in the gig economy, investment in new knives, pans and utensils may seem like a less vital thing on which to spend money.
A significant number of consumers are simply uninterested in making food or are even making food less during Covid-19. In its most recent consumer survey, GlobalData found that a shocking 23% of global consumers reported that they expected to reduce the time spent cooking or preparing food at home. A further 4% said that they intend to stop it all together.
In many places, consumers were simply never taught how to cook. Public schooling in many countries started to reduce home cooking curricula as budget cuts were introduced in past decades and the job market shifted more towards marketable skills like information technology, sporting prowess or STEM or similar subjects that would aid students in securing places at more prestigious universities. It was expected that cooking would be taught at home for free by family members. Combined, these factors have reduced the cooking skills in the population and reduced opportunities to learn. For these consumers, convenient food is a short-term necessity that becomes a long-term staple.
Stress eating and indulgence
Stress eating is a known phenomenon where stress causes the body to release hormones like cortisol that increase appetites. Typically, these appetites are for ‘comfort food’ that is high in fat and sugar, which can become addictive. Stress during a global pandemic that severely disrupts normal life is completely normal, and it seems likely that consumers will stress eat more, and stress eating typically means more snacking and more unhealthy food. Indulgent food like chocolate and ice cream, in other words, to offset the negative feelings.
With personal contact reduced due to social distancing, concern over financial security and personal health so high due to Covid-19, it is to be expected that the average consumer is experiencing a larger amount of stress than usual. Stress from work and other sorts of problems correlate with weight gain, and consumers with high cortisol levels are more likely to respond to daily difficulties by snacking than consumers with low cortisol.
GlobalData’s consumer survey discovered that only 4% of global consumers consider themselves not concerned about the outbreak of Covid-19, and 42% of global consumers described themselves as ‘extremely concerned.’ While consumers have been trapped at home, Unilever reported a 26% increase in ice cream sales in the three months to June.
The appeal of convenience is obviously not just the raw cost. While it may be true that a food provision system that prioritises simplified commodities at the lowest prices will result in a greater preponderance of lower-quality bulk items that cover their worse-tasting ingredients with sugar and salt, the greater appeal of cheap food is the reduced demand on the consumer’s time.
As industrial processes become automated and workflows become smarter, growth in the gig economy across industries is likely to increase. In the UK alone, there were an estimated 896,000 people employed on zero-hour contracts as their main job, 115,000 more than a year earlier. As the global economy slips towards recession, the likelihood of companies laying off workers and those workers transitioning to multiple ‘gig’ jobs increases. For many in the months and years after the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, working unreliable and longer hours to get by will mean more time commuting and less time available to make food.
Even now, when many consumers are reporting that they are cooking more food (GlobalData’s consumer survey recorded 37% of global consumers expect to be cooking or preparing food at home more often), more people are furloughed or working from home and people still feel exhausted. Stress tires the body, and the emotional cost of cooking when you are on the edge of exhaustion is significant. In addition to cooking, people still have to clean, look after children, exercise and spend quality time with their romantic partners. All of these things require effort and time, and many consumers still feel the pinch, even during the lockdown.
Going forward, companies should continue to attend to these human needs and should consider engaging with the narrative put forth by pundits regarding the evils of convenient food. Future promotional campaigns should focus on the hours saved that enable consumers to spend time with their families and unwind. By doing so, they may be able to shift focus in the category away from just value and convenience.