If you want a snapshot of how grocery shopping is evolving, look no further than the corner of Longo’s sprawling store in downtown Toronto.
The supermarket in Maple Leaf Square, beneath the city’s condo belt, has the usual state-of-the-art features for a sophisticated crowd. There are pristine rows of glossy eggplants, pomegranates and Ontario apples. Cooking demos flash from flat screens. At the ready-made meal centre, platters are heaped with stuffed pork loin with apple and fig glaze, jumbo shrimp and salad made from quinoa and feta.
But stroll past the Aisle43 wine shop and Starbucks, and it’s clear something else is going on here.
That’s where you’ll find Corks, a bar featuring local beer and wine, comfy armchairs, WiFi and a big-screen TV for anyone who wants to catch the Leafs first period before grabbing a shopping cart.
In an industry that has always chased women, this is one grocery store with definite guy appeal.
“Our store managers are telling us we’re seeing more men than ever before,” says Rob Koss, vice-president of marketing at Longo’s, which opened its 24th store in the Toronto area this month.
It may just be that this supermarket, which draws a male crowd from the surrounding condos and offices towers, is a kind of Ground Zero in the move toward equality in the aisles.
The puzzler facing today’s savvy grocery retailers is figuring out how to appeal to men, who are doing increasing amounts of grocery shopping, without alienating women, who still do the vast majority of it.
According to a study by NPD Group, men were the primary grocery shoppers in 25 per cent of Canadian households in 2010, up from 20 per cent in 2006. There are more male-only households, thanks in part to people marrying later and higher divorce rates. Among couples, more men are chipping in with household chores like grocery duty.
Appealing to both sexes is not as easy as it may sound. When it comes to domestic chores, shopping is about as mundane as it gets. But roiling beneath that routine task are sub-currents of gender relations and behaviour that could keep Dr. Phil going.
Guys shop differently. And even while more men are willing to take on the weekly ritual and fill-in shops between, women are still responsible for meal planning and preparation in 80 per cent of households, the NPD survey found.
When market researcher Nielsen asked women who should make the grocery decisions, 47 per cent said they should do it themselves, while 53 per cent wanted to share it with the guys. None of the women said men could manage by themselves. Meanwhile three-quarters of men said they wanted to share.
As usual in the sphere of human behaviour, there’s more to grocery shopping than merely filling the larder.
“The idea is (women) want to share the responsibility, but there’s a bit of a control-freak component too,” says Carman Allison, Nielsen’s director of consumer insights for Canada.
Modern men may be more proficient plying the supermarket aisles than were their fathers and grandfathers. But there’s been enough research done to explain why women are wary.
Consumer guru Paco Underhill wrote in Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping that men tend to shop the way they drive.
They move faster than women through a store. They spend less time looking. They don’t like asking where things are. They are less likely than women to check price-tags.
And they are particularly vulnerable to the entreaties of children.
In short, sending most men to a supermarket unchaperoned, without a list and with a couple of kids is just asking for trouble.
Marketing expert Tony Chapman of Capital C in Toronto says when either gender gets behind a shopping cart the pre-historic brain seems to kick in.
Men become hunters, darting around the store to nail their prey, whether it’s as pedestrian as Heinz 57 or some specialty brand of pine nuts.
Left to their own devices, they don’t use lists, unless given one by a female partner. They are not there to enjoy the scenery. Men tend to have little sense of where things are in the store and have trouble making a second choice when a product isn’t on the shelf.
The are simply overwhelmed by 99 varieties of cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil.
Ettorio DiNunzio, assistant manager at a Longo’s outlet in a family-oriented Vaughan neighbourhood, says men can also buy on impulse when swept up by a deal.
“I got it on sale. And I got lots of it,” he says. “Those are the first two things, and then we don’t think much beyond that.”
Such as how to eat all those half-price cartons of raspberries in the next three days or where to store 72 rolls of toilet paper.
Women, on the other hand, are the gatherers, combing the aisles for products that deliver what Chapman calls the four tenets of thorough shopping: taste, nutrition, convenience, affordability. They constantly evaluate and compare price, ingredients and what’s in the fridge at home.
They are also “natural treasure hunters,” excited at the thought of an exotic fruit or a pasta sauce that sneaks extra vegetables into kids.
Not everyone fits the mould, notes Chapman, who partners with Fresh Intelligence Research Corp., which gleans its findings from a panel of 10,000 shoppers from across Canada. (Guys picking up rapini for your special pasta dish tonight — we’re looking at you.)
But if market researchers and grocery merchandisers don’t tap into the general trends, they risk asking the majority of shoppers to “go against the grain.”
Koss says understanding and attracting the male grocery shopper is increasingly important, and Longo’s is even going after them with ads in male domains like radio station Q-107.
Catchy promotions, videos and invitations at the Longo’s deli to “try before you buy” are ways to interrupt and slow them down in the store, says Koss.
Produce comes with helpful hints for the novice cook. The sign above zucchini advises “no need to remove seeds.” At the meat counter, a wall diagram illustrates various cuts of beef.
Men in suits clasp flowers in one hand, shopping baskets in the other. Guys in hoodies trawl the ready-to-assemble aisles, where they can snap up a kit with separate packages of brown rice, chicken and vegetables to cook a stir-fry without doing much actual cooking.
You can see the creeping signs of male appeal in other chains too. At some stores, razors and batteries are near the cashiers for impulse buys, alongside the gum and chocolate favoured by women.
In Texas, H-E-B grocery stores have created “man caves” with TVs blaring sports, blue floor lights and hundreds of manly grooming products without a box of Tampax in sight.
Closer to home, Canadian Tire — a retail environment in which men feel comfortable browsing — has experimented with grocery aisles in a few of its stores since 2008, including locations in Oakville and Scarborough, just west and east of Toronto respectively.
Allison says there are key strategies that make sense not just for men, but for all customers, such as efficient checkouts and making sure products are in stock so sales aren’t lost to customers who go elsewhere.
Oh, and he has one more idea.
“Maybe grocery stores should offer couples counselling.”