Attention, Future Food Shoppers!

Prepare yourself for two-microwave families and packages that talk back, experts say. BRAVE NEW TRENDS

AMERICA in 1965 was a "meat and potatoes" society, says Walter H. Heller of Progressive Grocer magazine. "We ate four times as much red meat as poultry; the meat department accounted for more than one-fourth of all sales in the supermarket." One generation later, "It's been a long time since American shoppers went to the market just to buy food," he says. Nearly a third of today's supermarkets have video movies for rent; 20 percent have automated-teller machines. Twelve percent allow customers to send in their grocery lists by fax.

Not only changes in technology, but also changes in lifestyle, have affected how Americans shop for food and the food they buy, Mr. Heller says. He and others spoke on food-shopping and supermarket trends of the past, present, and future at the Food Market Institute's annual convention in Chicago recently.

"Today we have bagels in supermarkets where there are no Jewish customers, tacos in stores where there are no Mexicans, and sushi where there are no Californians," Heller concludes with a verbal wink. Motor oil, greeting cards, health and beauty aids, and even dry cleaning services are now available in local supermarkets - not to mention catering services from family picnics to weddings (flowers and cake included). "One-stop shopping" and "convenience" are today's buzzwords.

Back in the mid-1960s, baking needs made up 6 percent of grocery sales, Heller notes: "Many shoppers lived up to the Betty Crocker ideal." Busy consumers today have little time for baking, it seems: The category accounts for only 1.6 percent of sales.

Twenty-five years ago, the average shopping trip - usually on a Thursday or Friday - lasted 28 minutes and the average supermarket bill was $20.49 a week.

Today, shoppers make slightly more than two trips to the market each week, spending more than $72 altogether, according to Michael Sansolo, editor of Progressive Grocer. The major trip lasts nearly 50 minutes. Weekends are the preferred days, with 95 percent of all supermarkets having Sunday hours. Some are open 24 hours a day.

The proportion of income spent on food, however, has dropped: In the 1930s, 17 percent of disposable income was spent on food, compared with less than 8 percent today.

Microwave 'kid power'

In terms of technology, the microwave oven continues to reshape the way people shop and eat, says Watts Wacker, executive vice president of Yankelovich Clancy Shulman, a market-research group.

"What the microwave has done is transfer power - economic power, household management power - to the kids," Mr. Wacker says. Children, he predicts, "will have a greater and greater role in what's eaten, where it's gotten, who prepares it, and who else eats it." What makes the microwave so revolutionary is that it has taken much of the danger - a hot stove - out of cooking.

Looking further into the future, Wacker sees America developing a new set of social values for the 1990s, which he calls "neotraditionalism," because the values contain elements of two previous value systems.

Neotraditionalists "combine the security, stability, and responsibility of the traditional '50s with the later desire for individual choice and expression of the 'me generation, Watts says.

Take the traditional, family sit-down meal: Recent research finds that 80 percent of families with children eat at least five dinners together in a typical week. Watts expects that example of family togetherness to continue. But don't expect the members of those future families seated around the same table at the same time to be eating the same thing.

Between now and the year 2000, "We expect to see four different meals served to the four people around the family table," Watts says. "One person may have a microwaved main course; another may have takeout. A third may have leftovers. A fourth may have uncooked food."

In this way, the "tradition" of the 1950s will blend with the "me generation" traits of the '70s and '80s, he says.

American consumers "will continue to do what we've always done - find new ways to solve old problems," Watts says. By "old problems," he means "growing old."

America's Baby Boomers "will not go gently into that good night," Watts says. "We will turn that negative of growing old into a positive." Wrinkles, gray hair, bald heads, and generous figures will be - once again - symbols of dignity and, therefore, deserving of respect.

"Food will continue to grow as an emotional issue," he continues. "It's one thing that can be a reward, since you can't smoke, can't drink, can't take drugs."

Packages that speak to you

Boston package designer Joe Selame sees a new age of creativity in product packaging that includes talking boxes, bottles that shrink, and jars that self-destruct.

In the not-too-distant future, Mr. Selame says, talking computer chips will read cooking directions to you. And picture a box of cereal that says "Good morning!" - perhaps in the language of your choice - every time you open it.

The incredible shrinking package made with a bellows construction will decrease in size as its contents are used up. Containers made of polymers "programmed" to self-destruct will turn to powder when empty.

"The package will be the hero," says Selame. "It will do a lot more than just sell the product."

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