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How we shop for food is changing, in three charts

The produce aisle at a Publix grocery store in Knoxville, Tenn. (Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg)

The grocery industry is grappling with significant transformation in the marketplace.  Traditional supermarkets are feeling pressure from new competitors, including upstarts focused on natural and organic goods and big-box retailers such as Wal-Mart and Target that have expanded their grocery offerings.  All of these stores have had to figure out how to adapt to the preferences of millennial shoppers and fast-moving food trends, from the rise of the paleo diet to the preference for eating local.

A new research report from the Food Marketing Institute, a nonprofit group that represents the interests of food retailers and wholesalers, helps bring into focus the challenges and opportunities that retailers face as they try to win over new customers and hang onto existing ones.

Here are the key findings:

Millennials have a different approach to shopping

As the chart above demonstrates, millennials are more likely than previous generations to build shopping trips around a particular recipe, rather than simply to take a peek in the pantry and restock staples. They also place less emphasis on special discounts in their menu planning than do other generations.

FMI’s research found that millennial consumers have something of a  last-minute approach to shopping.  The study found that more than 25 percent of meals consumed by “20-somethings” include items they bought on the same day.  Millennials are also more last-minute when it comes to making grocery lists, with 37 percent of respondents saying they do so right before going to the store.  In other generations, the largest share of shoppers said they worked on their grocery list throughout the week, adding items as they ran out.

The report makes clear that FMI does not expect these differences to go away as millennials age.  Rather, they say this more spontaneous approach to meal-planning reflects broader changes in food culture that are likely to remain endemic to this generation.

People are more focused on healthy eating

The drumbeat is growing louder for Americans to adopt healthier diets.  This chart shows that in a relatively short time span, shoppers have become more focused on the healthiness of the goods they are buying.

Many retailers are moving to cater to these changing preferences.  Wal-Mart, for example, announced earlier this year it would carry low-priced Wild Oats organic products. Kroger’s chief operating officer Michael L. Ellis told investors earlier this year that the company’s Simple Truth organic line “continues to grow at an astonishing pace” and is likely to be a billion-dollar brand by the end of this fiscal year.

Loyalty to a particular store is fading away

While the traditional supermarket still reigns as the top destination for grocery shopping, this chart effectively illustrates just how fierce the competition for your grocery dollars has become.  FMI found that the traditional way of shopping–with one major weekly trip to the same neighborhood grocery–is becoming less common.

The shopping experience is becoming highly fragmented, the study found.  For example, a consumer might do a large trip to a traditional supermarket every other week, but do “fill-in trips” in between those outings to a drug store or a convenience store.  Another shopper might purchase produce at an organic food store, but get packaged items at a warehouse club store such as Costco or Sam’s Club.

Our decreased loyalty to a single store is also evident in the number of people who say they have a “primary store” where they do most of their shopping.  In 2014, the number of people who do not have a primary store rose to 9 percent, up from 3 percent in 2013 and 2 percent in 2011.

As these patterns continue to shift, the pressure is on food retailers of all kinds to react nimbly to give shoppers an experience that will keep them coming back.