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On Occasion
The occasion-based shopper demands a tailored experience.

Today’s traditional grocery shopper shops the way her supermarket tells her to shop. Week after week, she pushes her grocery cart along a familiar path: up and down the dry goods aisles, weaving in and out of appealingly stacked — but often unrelated — products on display. She even creates her shopping list based on where products are placed and how her local store is laid out.

The problem is, that’s not how she thinks about buying food. She thinks proteins and veggies for dinner, fruit snacks and juice boxes for lunch, milk for breakfast. Where manufacturers are thinking “brands” and retailers are thinking “categories,” she is thinking “dinner.” That’s a disconnect.

The shopper has changed. Brands need to change how they sell. Retailers need to adapt, maybe even redesign, to meet the shopper’s needs. Better, more observational, research is required. Shopper marketing needs to play a bigger role by creating the connections, pathways and experiences that can tap into what’s on the shopper’s mind. It is the age of the occasion-based shopper.

How She Shops

According to a study from The Coca-Cola Company, nearly 60 percent of a shopper’s trips to the store are occasion-based. That’s six out of 10 trips. Coca-Cola discussed the research in a spring seminar at the 2012 Shopper Marketing Summit, hosted by the Path to Purchase Institute. Coca-Cola also cited that the average American family today spends 12 minutes, on average, at the dinner table. Just 12 minutes!

It’s clear that today’s shopper has put a value on time. It’s not just about what’s in stock or getting an item at the lowest price point. The occasion-based shopper values an efficient shopping trip.

Consider, for example, The Lunch Spot, an in-line section from Kraft Foods in select Meijer stores. The section carries shelf-stable staples like bread, juice boxes, and snacks. But there is also a refrigerated section built into this in-aisle unit that carries Lunchables, cheese, yogurt, Jell-O, and more. It’s a one-stop shop for Mom to tackle her kid’s lunch. It’s Kraft working with Meijer to answer the ring of that shopping-occasion bell.

So, what exactly are these occasions and how are shoppers preparing for them? In the most urgent form, they are more than just the meals centered on big holidays. The occasions are breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks. Mom has hungry mouths to feed.

Just look at what happens when it comes to the daily dinner dilemma. Google Insights shows a spike in online recipe searches on Sundays that bottoms out on Fridays and Saturdays, pointing to a trend of families planning meals at the beginning of the week in advance of their shopping trip. But by the weekend the shopper is far less interested in cooking, fueling the popular “Friday Pizza Night.” Shouldn’t that be an opportunity for retailers to think more creatively about low-effort dinner solutions for the end of the week?

When looking at “lunchbox” searches, Google Insights shows a peak in August and September — the prime Back-to-School season. However, what marketers may not notice is that there is also a spike in searches during the January and March timeframe, and that shoppers are looking to purchase healthier items for the lunchbox and looking for fresh, new ideas. The paycheck cycle may also be in play, as lunchbox searches are higher at the beginning of each month as compared to the end of each month.

From a broader perspective, an eMarketer report showed that nearly 90 percent of internet users look for recipes online, and more than a third read food bloggers online. Shoppers do research. In the CatapultRPM 2011 Digital Shopper Marketing study, more than a quarter of shoppers reported using blogs as a tool for the shopping trip and that Pinterest is being used to build shopper-to-shopper conversations about food. The same eMarketer report demonstrated that more than half of Pinterest users interact with food content, and 25 percent said they bought a product after seeing it recommended on Pinterest.

We also know that occasion-based shoppers shop multiple channels like never before. She’s shopping online (with a computer, tablet or mobile phone), on multiple sites from Amazon to, and in multiple stores — from supermarkets to club to drugstores.

There’s this interesting paradox occurring where shoppers are going to more retailers to do their grocery shopping, yet there’s a time benefit of a one-stop shop. They may go to a high-end grocer for produce, for example, but items like toothpaste and toilet paper will be too expensive, so they’ll go to another store or go online. Maybe another grocer has an excellent prepared foods section, so a shopper can grab lunch there, but also pick up items for dinner. She’s become a pro at knowing what to buy where, and for how much. Why would she do that? Because time can mean value beyond price — and, needless to say, she’s in control of her own shopping behavior, not the retailer.

Retailers and Brands Must Change

Traditional grocers need to rethink the “value” they’re bringing to shoppers, and it’s not all about price. The first step for retailers is to learn more about their shoppers and how they are buying products within their stores. Brands may help here, but sharing that data and creating actionable insights from it may require a higher level of retail intimacy between the two than currently exists.

The output, however, will be clear. For some retailers, it may mean changing the layout of their stores — literally re-architecting the spaces around how a shopper thinks. For brands, it could mean joining forces with other manufacturers — or even with competitors — to create solution-selling opportunities for the shopper.

For both, it would mean learning more intimately what makes shopping trips easier and more valuable to the shopper based on the occasions for which she’s shopping — and taking a giant step away from focusing solely on price, signage, displays, or customized coupons centered on a single brand.

The brand just might have to come last in this new world. We may have to face the fact that consumers are not waking up in the morning and saying, “What should I serve with my mayonnaise?” They’re thinking, “What can I make the kids for lunch?” So, what role can the brand play? In the occasion-based shopper’s mind, the brand is her seal-of-approval. It’s the tool she can use to solve or enhance an occasion-based dilemma.

This should give us a clue as to how brands need to sell to retailers. It should mean there’s more to talk about than selling-in a portfolio of brands or the latest flavor-of-the-month. It’s not about the number of cases, or the range of prices, or even about meeting the needs of a specific demographic. It’s about selling-in a “solve” for a shopper’s meal occasion.

Take this example of two Baby Boomers:

Betty is 62, and working part time. She’s in pretty good health and leads an active life. She shops at Trader Joe’s, Costco and Safeway. She purchases high-fiber cereal, plenty of fruits and vegetables, Greek yogurt, fish and daily multivitamins. Betty walks for exercise four days a week (most weeks), and she’s an avid traveler. She’s very receptive to information and products that help her maintain her proactive health approach. She’s looking for brands and retailers to help her navigate what has become a pretty complicated landscape in terms of health and wellness.

Since it’s just Betty and her husband, she doesn’t like to make big stock-up trips when she’s shopping; she’d rather just buy what’s needed for the two of them, and for immediate occasions. In fact, she’s become a bit frustrated with her shopping because there is so much “junk food” that gets in the way of the items she wants. When it comes to breakfast, she’d really like all of her needs to be together (Greek yogurt, high-fiber cereal, fruit, and low-fat milk) instead of having to walk through four different aisles spread across the store — what a waste of time!

Laurie is 59, and working full time. She struggles with her health and believes that food does play a role in that, but she doesn’t want to deprive herself of enjoyment either. She works too hard. Flavor in her food is critical, and she purchases a range of cheeses, marinades, sauces and spices. She manages her health through prescription medications from her doctor. While she’s shopping for a dinner party this weekend, she wants to be inspired. Still, she’s equally frustrated as well, as everything is set up in aisles, and there’s no meal planning help that would motivate her to create new dishes and impress her guests.

catapultrpmIt’s clear a brand can only market to one of the above targets. But how about being able to identify whether it’s Betty or Laurie who’s the right shopper for your brand, and then creating an occasion-based sell-in story for her that harnesses the power of your brand, along with other brands, and that’s supported by true transactional data from the retailer? Now that’s a sell-in story. It’s critical to begin adopting an approach like this to drive more mutually beneficial programming for both brands and retailers.

Brands need to go beyond the obvious to unlock the needs, wants and desires of the occasion-based shopper. Observational research, shopalongs and ethnographies can all go a long way towards revealing a shopper’s true motivations when she arrives at the moment-of-truth. But a story — no matter how compelling — is only as effective as its ability to drive the sale.

This means striking a balance between the shopper’s rational and emotional triggers to define what puts her over the edge. It means gathering the data and beyond so that brands and retailers can understand it in a more human way, on a level that breaks barriers and makes the brand and the retail experience more enjoyable and memorable, and ultimately sells more product. This is shopper marketing to the occasion-based shopper.

Only after learning about the shopper can a brand build the right connections at the point-of-purchase. Only then can a brand bundle the right brands for the right occasion, adjust packaging to fit the occasion, target displays that speak to the occasion, delve into media and the retailer’s website, program in-store TV or radio or mobile with QR codes, adjust adjacencies to be relevant for her occasion, and, finally, reinvent the shopping experience itself.

Shopper marketing must accommodate the way today’s shoppers shop. We can attract attention along the way by provoking interaction with the shopper, tapping into her true rational need (I need peanut butter for my son’s lunch) and satisfying an emotional desire (he does love Spider-Man), but the role is to be there for her. How can we make her shopping trip easier?

We can put a sale here. A promotion there. A new digital app anywhere. But our shopper's time is stretched thin and her attention span is short. We first and foremost need to develop a strategy that satisfies her occasion-based needs. The rest will fall into place.

is evp, group director of CatapultRPM, working with Gerber, Mars Chocolate, and Kraft Beverages. She previously worked at Kraft Foods and Danone and can be reached at BETH CRAIG is director, marketing insights for CatapultRPM. and has held senior market-research posts at Kraft, and Canon USA. Email:

NOVEMBER / DECEMBER 2012 | PDF | Subscribe | Home