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Grocery stores are adapting to more male shoppers — whom they treat like knuckleheads

Raymond Blanks usually takes the bus to Whole Foods to get what he needs in Washington. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

More men are heading to the supermarket these days.

That’s according to a new survey by Men’s Health, which found that 84 percent of men are now the primary grocery shoppers in their households, marking a 19 percent increase from a decade ago.

The results “challenge many gender stereotypes related to food shopping and cooking,” said Chris Peel, publisher of Men’s Health. “Men have an active role in each stage of the food purchasing process — before getting to the store, while there and when cooking the food they’ve bought.”

It is worth noting that Men’s Health surveyed only men. Other surveys of both men and women have concluded that women continue to do slightly more of the country’s food-buying: NPD Group, for example, estimates that men are the primary grocery shoppers in 41 percent of U.S. households, while market research firm VideoMining puts that figure at about 49 percent of shoppers.

In any case, there is mounting evidence that more men are shopping for groceries than in previous generations. And when they do head to the store, men tend to buy many items at once, and shop alone, according to Men’s Health.

The reasons for those shifts are twofold, experts say. Gender roles are shifting, which means men are taking on more household responsibilities. And Americans are increasingly putting off marriage, so “you’ve got a lot of single men who’ve got to shop for themselves,” says David W. Stewart, a marketing professor at Loyola Marymount University.

And it doesn’t hurt that “there’s a younger generation of man who’s actively interested in food,” said Paco Underhill, chief executive of Envirosell, a New York behavioral research firm. Nearly half of those surveyed by Men’s Health, for example, said they’d watched cooking videos in the past year, while 93 percent said they’d prepared meals for themselves.

But there are still pronounced differences in how men and women approach grocery shopping.

Major food brands go after a once-ignored customer: Men

“Men are not terribly strategic,” Stewart said. “They walk in and buy what they remember is needed. They’re buying for right now, or maybe tonight. Anything beyond that is too long-term.”

Case in point: Women are most likely to buy 12-packs of beer, while men typically buy six-packs, according to Underhill.

“Men tend to be hunters: They want to kill something quickly, drag it out and feel successful,” he said. “Women, though, they’re thinking ahead and planning accordingly.”

Men also tend to spring for pricier cuts of meat and are more easily influenced by a brand’s name or reputation, Stewart said. They are more likely to buy what is easily visible and catches their eye. As a result, supermarkets have begun adding more special displays in their stores, and rethinking their organization.

“Remember: Many male shoppers come to the store without a weekly or even same-day meal plan in mind,” Kellogg’s said in a 2015 report. “Consider organizing aisles and displays around shopper missions, like ‘lunchbox essentials’ or ‘tonight’s dinner,’ and calling out these sections with clear signage so the male shopper can quickly find what he is looking for.”

Other chains have begun making smaller changes: Grouping meats and barbecue sauce together, for instance, or displaying wine glasses alongside bottles of wine, Underhill said.

“Part of what they’re doing is trying to make the shopping process more fun,” he said. “Men tend to get easily frustrated.”

And, added Stewart, just because more American men are buying groceries doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement.

“There are definite differences in perception: Men think they’re great shoppers,” Stewart said. “But women — wives, girlfriends, spouses — they tend to have, well, a less positive view.”


Dig Deeper: Consumer Culture + Gender

Want to explore more about how gender plays into what we buy? Check out our curated list of stories below.
Items marketed to women and girls cost 7 percent more on average than similar products targeting men and boys. 
Shopping gave 19th-century middle-class women the chance to be a part of urbanization without male chaperones, which caused a scandal. 
Researchers are advising grocers how to adapt their stores to men, like labeling sections so they’re more mission oriented. Think “lunchbox essentials” versus “bread.”