Shopping for Supermarket Insight
Food-industry expert Phil Lempert's aisle-by-aisle tour. CHECKING OUT THE STORE
PHIL LEMPERT is "the supermarket guru." As a food-industry expert and market analyst, he sees the supermarket not just in terms of bringing home the bacon, but as an emporium for insight.Each year, Mr. Lempert visits hundreds of supermarkets and speaks with more than 5,000 consumers. He also hosts "Consumer Insight" on the American Radio Network, makes frequent TV appearances, and publishes The Lempert Report, a newsletter about the food industry. His mission: to increase consumer awareness of food trends. Supermarkets are libraries of lifestyle and popular culture. "Where else can you find 20,000 different products under one roof?" he asks. But they are also bastions of business savvy. The "Buy me!" marketing mentality is everywhere. From "plan-a-grams" (charts of what goes where, so it will sell better) to promotions, to products, supermarkets spur you to spend that extra buck. With a nose like Ralph Nader, figuratively speaking, Lempert has a knack for sniffing out truths in the food industry. He blew the whistle on the oat-bran craze, for example, and would now like to ban "no cholesterol" labels as misleading. He also complains that too many companies over-package products in this age of the garbage crisis.Skip to next paragraph
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An informal tour of two markets With all this in mind, this reporter asked Lempert for an informal supermarket tour, to fill a mental shopping cart with insights. We acted as consumer-tourists, dividing our time between two mid-sized supermarkets in New Jersey: Grand Union and Pathmark. The minute you walk into a supermarket, you're going to be hit with an impression, explains Lempert as we step into Grand Union. What stores are doing now, he says, is placing consumers immediately in either the produce department or bakery. "They want to appeal to your senses - beautiful colors, freshness.... This is the first 10 to 15 seconds we've been in the store," he says. In Pathmark, the produce section is designed so that one must zigzag to get to the next aisle. The lights are right above the produce, not in the ceiling, so your eyes are drawn to the produce, Lempert points out. Need milk? Typically it will be the farthest thing away from the door because it's the biggest seller, says Lempert. By the time you get to the milk, you've probably seen the rest of the store - and picked up other items. Another relatively new feature is the "cheese table," says Lempert as we approach the end of aisle No. 1. It's typically a well-arranged table of cheese, crackers, and other imported or gourmet-type items that have upscale appeal - in other words, they're more expensive. Sometimes a service person is there to help. Lempert takes a hunk of mild cheddar cheese and brings it to the regular dairy section to compare prices. The "specialty" cheese is $4.99 a pound; the regular dairy case cheese is $3.34 a poun d. Next, he takes a cheese spread labeled "light" and compares it with another brand labeled "ultra light.Any health claim on the front of the label is a signpost to turn to nutritional information," says Lempert. "Don't trust it." (In fact, the "ultra light" brand contained more fat.) Next we come to an end-of-aisle display: jugs of cranberry-cocktail juice at the store's "everyday low price." "That doesn't mean you're saving money, doesn't mean it's on sale," Lempert warns. Sometimes manufacturers have given the supermarket an incentive to put the product on display, as in a paid promotion. When you get to the aisle where the promoted item is normally stocked, compare, Lempert says.