NO MATTER what public relations strategies the supermarket industry has employed over the last four and a half years, it has been unable to convince the majority of the American public that it gives value for money received. At the same time, in what seems a schizophrenic reaction, the majority of people feel the store in which they shop does a good job of giving value for money received.
Every since July of 1974, when the Food Marketing Institute first commissioned a survey of consumer attitudes towards the food industry and supermarkets, nothing has changed the essentially negative image.
In 1974, 58 percent of the people surveyed thought supermarkets struck "a bad balance between profits and public responsibility." The figure has been as high as 72 percent but has stayed in the 60s in the last 3 1/2 years, resting at 64 percent in the survey taken in February of this year. Food manufacturers do even worse.
The survey was commissioned when food prices began to climb rapidly. The fluctuations in public attitudes and shopping patterns since then appear to mirror the rate of food inflation. When it is escalating rapidly, more people have a negative view of the food industry and make efforts to economize. When inflation slows down, fewer people feel negatively and fewer of them economize.
A ray of hope for the industry's tarnished image may lie in the increasing number of women who have gone to work. The report notes that ". . . compared to the housewife . . . today's rising number of working women with the benefits of two paychecks in the family are finding it easier to cope with inflation, (are) more optimistic about the future, somewhat less price sensitive (and) more demanding of service, convenience and time-saving measures."
Compared to a year ago, 31 percent of women who work felt their standard of living is better than it was. Only 16 percent of nonworking women were optimistic. However, just like nonworking women, the majority of those who work were "worried a lot about food costs."
The shopping patterns of working women reinforce their attitudes. They want to save time, but they won't compromise their demands. Among them 36 percent shop at a particular supermarket because it is less crowded. This is true for only 28 percent of the nonworkers. By the same token 28 percent of the workers will walk out of a store if it is too crowded. That's 7 percent more than in the nonworking group.
On the other hand, and this may come as something of a surprise, while 41 percent of the nonworkers will take the available meat cut rather than asking for a different cut, only 36 percent of workers will do so. Only 20 percent of the workers, compared to 24 percent of the nonworkers, will buy packaged produce rather than taking the time to have it weighed. Only 22 percent of the workers, compared to 24 percent of the nonworkers, will go to a convenience store rather than a supermarket.
It is less surprising to find that nonworking women are economizing by doing more baking, canning and freezing (59 versus 49 percent), doing more meal planning (69 versus 61 percent), stocking up on bargains (78 versus 75 percent), buying cheaper cuts of meat (57 versus 53 percent), buying fewer national brands (61 versus 57 percent) and eating out less often (53 versus 49 percent.)
Most of the statistics compiled for the Food Marketing Institute by Yankelovitch, Skelly and White, do not break out working women from the total response. But few of the results can be particularly comforting to supermarket executives. People are returning to the shopping habits which characterized their behavior when money was tight before: buying fewer impulse and sale items, putting back items when they finish shopping.
Among those people who laid the blame on some institution for the high price of food, 39 percent said the government was at fault. The number who thought supermarkets were to blame was at an all-time low, only 3 percent. The figure has been as high as 11 percent. Thirty-nine percent didn't feel anyone was really to blame.