(May 9) CHICAGO — Supermarket owners were dealt a seemingly losing hand last year: higher energy costs, an economic downturn, rising unemployment rates and lagging consumer confidence immediately following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

But what wasn’t lagging — even as anthrax scares and discussions about food security grabbed headlines — was consumer confidence in the food supply, according to the Food Marketing Institute’s “Trends in the United States: Consumer Attitudes & the Supermarket, 2002.” The report, unveiled during FMI’s 25th anniversary show May 5-7 in Chicago, gave retailers a glimmer of hope.

A majority of more than 2,000 randomly selected consumers who took the survey said they had confidence in the safety of their food, with 81% making that claim, up from 74% in 2000.

“They want from us food that they can count on,” said Michael Sansolo, FMI senior vice president, who opened and closed the annual show by reviewing the trends report. “Over the past year, they got reasons to be a little distrustful. We’ve gone through the publicity about mad cow, about foot and mouth (diseases). After Sept. 11 we had countless — all unproven — reports about anthrax in stores, and there’s this repeated parade of media stories about food safety.”

RECURRING THEMES

Food safety and food security were common themes at the show, with several sessions covering the topics. During a presentation on “Protecting the Nation’s Food Supply,” Dan Faketty, vice president of loss prevention for the 148 Harris Teeter Inc. stores, said his retail chain was in the process of making security upgrades before the Sept. 11 attacks, but they spurred on extra measures.

Harris Teeter distributed FMI’s protocol on responding to a biological threat, which also includes a list of items that might trigger an anthrax scare, including natural bloom on produce, a naturally occurring thin white haze.

FMI president and chief executive officer Tim Hammonds said anyone who plans to intentionally harm others through the food supply should not underestimate the industry’s security procedures, which range from increased background checks to surveillance equipment and restriction of access to facilities.

Hammonds asked retailers to register with Food Industry Security Information and Analysis Center, which partners FMI with the National Infrastructure Protection Center to provide help reporting and assessing possible threats to the food industry.

LEARNING OPPORTUNITIES

The FMI Show offered expanded learning opportunities for retailers at three-hour “learning labs” covering perishables marketing, supermarket branding and loyalty marketing. Category Close-ups returned for the second year, focusing on buyer-seller collaborations, new products, organic and natural foods and the growing Hispanic population.

Sansolo used a game show format to review the trends report, involving participants while discussing consumer, technology, government and economic issues that affect retailers.

“Consumers told us in the year 2001 they felt the economic pressure, and a number of forms of economizing moved back to the top of their shopping list,” Sansolo said.

According to the report, consumers place a premium on high-quality fruits and vegetables, with produce second in importance only to the store’s overall cleanliness.

“High quality perishables are always very important,” Sansolo said.

Other notable items from the report:

  • Half of shoppers said they were “very concerned” about the nutritional content of their diet, up 4% from 2000.

  • Eating main meals away from home decreased in 2001.

  • While fast food restaurants are the main source of takeout, 17% said the supermarket is their most frequent source of takeout meals, compared to 14% for restaurants.

  • Budget-conscious shoppers comprise one-third of the consumer base, but shoppers who place service and availability of premium products higher comprise 39%; the remaining shoppers look for convenient and time-saving items.