If following the same shopping pattern for two years constitutes a permanent trend, then manufacturers of-convenience foods have something to worry about.
In the fifth of an ongoing series checking food shopping habits, a study done for the Super Market Institute last summer showed that certain methods for economizing, begun when the price of food was skyrocketing have continued.
At the same time, people had begun to look at the food industry and business in general in a slightly more kindly fashion than they had when the survey began and during the intervening two years. But they were still suspicious, according to the findings of the polling firm, Yankelovich, Skelly and White. Forty-nine per cent of those surveyed still thought supermarket's profits were excessive; 60 per cent thought food manufacturers made too much money and 51 per cent felt that higher prices meant greater profits for the supermarket industry.
While 82 per cent of the respondents in July, 1974, thought the consumer was better off when a company makes a profit, the figure has sunk to a new low of 57 per cent in the latest survey. At the same time 17 per cent of the public blames the government for increased food prices, but food wholesalers run a close second at 15 per cent and food manufacturers get 11 per cent of the blame. Supermarkets come in for only 4 per cent of the blame; farmers a mere 1 per cent.
Even as people are portioning out the blame for high prices they continue to do something about it on an individual basis.
In July, 1974, 55 per cent stocked up on bargains; two years later the number had increased to 74 per cent.
Sixty-six per cent bought store or lower-priced brands in the first survey. The first rose to 73 per cent by July, 1976.
The 65 per cent who were buying less convenience foods in this last survey has held at that point for six months.
The number of people who are buying in quantity if it's cheaper was also at its highest point, 56 per cent, which is 16 per cent above the baseline figure in July 74.
The number of shoppers who refused to buy products because they cost too much was 79 per cent in the first survey. It has been holding at 86 per cent according to the latest findings.
But shoppers were getting away from reducing their meat consumption and buying cheaper cuts of meat. Only 47 per cent were buying cheaper cuts last summer, the lowest the figure has been since the survey started.
This is not surprising since the cost of meat was much lower last summer than it had been for quite awhile.
Fewer people were clipping coupons, serving less at meals or doing more with leftovers.
Even though some economy measures had been cut back, the cost of food continued to worry as many people as it did in July, 1974 and 64 per cent considered it as big a problem last summer as the cost of utilities.
Still, the many negative feelings about food prices in general is not reflected in people's attitudes toward the supermarkets in which they shop: 82 per cent of those surveyed were satisfied with their stores.
For the first time the survey asked what consumers considered the most important characteristics of supermarkets. Of the six major reasons given for choosing the store in which they shop, four of the reasons given had to do with what the survey called "human relations." It also might be called a desire to get away from the depersonalization or dehumanization of the late 20the century.
Rated above all other things as "extremely important" were: "feeling comfortable asking for your money back on a product that wasn't satisfactory" (58 per cent); "store management (that) listens to and tries to be responsive to your concerns" (52 per cent); feeling "comfortable asking for personal service like getting the meat cut the way you want it or getting as much or as little produce as you want" (44 per cent); "store employees easy to locate when you have a question" (43 per cent).
While the survey indicates that people want personalized service, which may account for the resurgence of speciality food stores where quality and prices are higher, but service is included, they also think certain frills are unnecessary.
Seventy-eight per cent "strongly agree" or "somewhat agree" that there is too much fancy packaging such as cheese and crackers in one package.
Seventy-two per cent think prices would go down if food manufacturers would reduce the amount of advertising by 10 per cent.
Forty-two per cent believe money could be saved if manufactures were permitted to manufacture no more than three standard sizes of products.
These findings are similar to those produced in a survey conducted by the Agriculture Council of America. Their results from a November-December polling showed that 86 per cent would like to be able to purchase more things in bulk and have less convenience packaging and preparation. The idea of farmers selling directly to consumers appealed to 89 per cent of those who responded to the survey.
It is particularly interesting to note that what consumer activists have been saying for the last several years about food prices is, to a large extent, how the general public perceives the issues.
Overwhelmingly, consumers agree that supermarket chains sell their products for less than small stores. Sixty-eight per cent believe this is because the chains can buy more efficiently or in larger quantities. But at the same time, 57 per cent think a few large chains set the prices and everyone else has to follow them.
This latest of the Super Market Institute findings indicates that supermarkets still have a lot to do to improve their image, but much of what must be done is in the hands of the manufacuturer rather than the final seller to the public: less wasteful packaging and preparations, fewer sizes, reduction in advertising budget.
Of course it has always been the contention of consumer activists that the supermarket should act as the purchasing agent for the consumer rather than as the selling agent for the producer. Combined action might have a greater impact on the middleman who does so much to increase the cost between raw farm materials and processed or overprocessed goods at the store.
With the cost of food almost certain to go higher than expected because of unfavorable weather conditions, there is likely to be increased pressure to economize. The techniques which are now considered a permanent trend probably will increase; those which have dropped off may rise once again. These are trends which the supermarket industry must be watching very carefully.