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Survey: Supermarket shoppers buy only a fraction of what's on the shelves

A new survey by Catalina, a St. Petersburg digital marketing company, found that shoppers select less than 1 percent of products in grocery stores over a year’s time. 
A new survey by Catalina, a St. Petersburg digital marketing company, found that shoppers select less than 1 percent of products in grocery stores over a year’s time. 
Published Jan. 23, 2014

When it comes to grocery shopping — as with most mundane activities — we're creatures of habit. Week after week, we stick to the same items, same brands, same flavors. We might go rogue and buy pickled artichokes for a new recipe, but otherwise, we fall back on the tried and true. If my cart doesn't have Life cereal, Silk soy milk and Kraft macaroni and cheese, it's only because I have plenty at home.

A new survey by Catalina, a St. Petersburg digital marketing company that works with grocers and other retailers, confirms that most of us are that boring. Its study found that shoppers buy less than 1 percent of products in grocery stores over a year's time. People ignore 99.3 percent of what's on the shelf and, on average, buy only 260 different products in a year.

Rather than dull, Catalina calls us "selective.''

"When we go into a grocery store, we are on a mission to get in and get out as fast as possible,'' said John Caron, vice president of marketing for Catalina. "We have blinders on. Most people walk in to get what they want and leave.''

The yearlong study, which tracked the buying habits of 32 million shoppers at 9,968 U.S. grocery stores, also found that no two shopping carts were entirely alike. Two customers might have bought the same items — potato chips, laundry detergent and peanut butter — but never in identical brands, sizes and varieties, which isn't a wild stretch, given that the average store had more than 35,000 products.

At a time when consumers demand more choices than ever, Catalina's research supports the notion that supermarkets need to create personalized shopping experiences and connect with customers on an individual basis. Traditional, one-size-fits-all methods aren't enough, Caron said, citing other stats about weekly circulars in the survey, Engaging the Selective Shopper. A look at a major grocer's circular found that two-thirds of all carts didn't include a single item among the 1,172 advertised that week.

To reach the selective shopper, Catalina is touting its new mobile app that sends coupons to shoppers' smartphones based on their past purchases and their location in the store, as traced through Wi-Fi. Buy a lot of pet products and you might get a coupon for Purina. Walk down the cereal aisle and you might get a coupon for a new flavor of Mini-Wheats.

The app, which shoppers open when they get into a participating store, also allows for mobile checkout. Customers scan each product's bar code to add to their cart. To skip the regular checkout line, they finalize the sale at a mobile kiosk.

The app is up and running at about 400 locations of Ahold's Stop & Shop and Giant stores, but so far, it isn't available locally. Catalina, which Reuters recently reported may be up for sale for $2.5 billion, said tests showed that shoppers who used the app spent 6 to 8 percent more than other shoppers. The average customer saved $250 to $300 a year.

Particularly attractive to retailers is that stores can decide who gets the offers, as compared with weekly circulars that are available to everyone. For instance, a customer who buys a case of Diet Coke every week may need only a reminder — not a coupon — because she'll buy it anyway at full price. Instead, stores might target a shopper who likes soft drinks but doesn't regularly buy Coke.

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"The big problem with circulars is that they treat all the customers the same,'' Caron said. "They end up subsidizing purchases.''

Of course, getting customers accustomed to the mobile app takes time, and only a limited number opt in. Catalina doesn't expect it will replace coupon clipping any time soon, but it will appeal to tech-savvy shoppers who want the best deals.

"The type of customer who gravitates toward this is a store's top customer,'' Caron said. "They are high spenders and highly loyal — the ones you want to keep in your franchise. There's a learning curve to it, but once people start using it, they see the incremental savings.''

I can't see the app winning over big bargain hunters — I'll always refuse to buy Life cereal at full price, no matter how much I like it — but I do see it as a good way to introduce shoppers to the many products we haven't tried.

Susan Thurston can be reached at or (813) 225-3110. Follow @susan_thurston on Twitter.


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