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.

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.

Revolution in the juice aisle The juice aisle is next. "There is a revolution going on in juices," says Lempert. The Federal Department of Agriculture will soon require that companies state the percentage of real juice in such drinks, and even break down the percentage of each juice in blended juice drinks: "a very clear indication of how consumers will be better informed," he notes. Aseptic juice containers ("juice boxes"), which many consider bad for the environment, may be convenient, but "we don't need this product," says Lempert. Juice boxes are expensive, too: Here, it's $1.63 per quart as opposed to 99 cents per quart of glass-bottled juice. "You're paying a lot for packaging." As far as hot drinks, Lempert predicts that herbal teas will skyrocket in the future. Another high-growth area he sees are "all natural" sodas, he says - but check the labels, he adds. "If a parent can make it down this aisle they deserve a medal," says Lempert as we round the corner into to the breakfast cereal aisle. The aisle sign at Pathmark lists toys, children's books, cereal, and candy. "Healthy" adult cereals are on the top shelf, "commodity" cereals (corn flakes) on the bottom, and kids' cereals in the middle - at eye level, especially if you're riding in a shopping cart. 'Oh Mommy, I want this! Lempert mimics. We pick up a box of "Bill and Ted cereal - advertised as "a most awesome breakfast adventure." It includes a free cassette tape case. Then we compare some prices: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cereal is $4.47 a pound; corn flakes $1.49 a pound. "Typically, parents let their kids choose one cereal that they can have once a week," says Lempert. Some supermarkets offer candy-free aisles and checkouts, and many parents are grateful. "More responsible retailers continue to do that," Lempert says. But they're being challenged constantly by the candy companies, says Lempert.

Conservation-minded packaging "A lot is going on here," says Lempert as we scoot into the laundry-detergent area. With the Downy refill, for example, you buy the 64-ounce plastic jug just once, then use it again when you buy the concentrated refill and add water. It's less cost for the manufacturer, a lower price for consumers, and easier on the environment, says Lempert. "We're going to see more of that kind of thinking," he adds. We pause in the frozen-foods section, which has grown tremendously in the past five years, especially frozen dinners. Lempert says he would like to see some movement toward healthier frozen meals, especially for children. He also points out some good and bad packaging. Some microwave entrees include a plastic plate, which is ridiculous, he says. One study showed that many people throw away the plastic plate and use their own at home. And they are more expensive You're paying $1.50 for the plate!" he says. Not many people have the luxury of seeing supermarkets this way, Lempert points out at the end of the tour - with no time limit, no children, and nothing to buy.

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