America’s lunchtime is changing

May 31, 2012

Shorter lunches, closer to the desk, are today's norm. Might quick snacks replace? And the meal gets healthier for some.

Lunchtime is evolving in diverse ways—shaping consumer behavior and affecting the sales approaches supermarkets may have to take.

In workplaces, lunchtime is getting shorter and more on-premise so people can save time and do more.  Yet research has shown that eating at one’s desk or in the company cafeteria or break room, carries its own germicidal risks:  HealthDay reports contamination was high on 75% of break room faucet handles, 48% of microwave handles, 27% of keyboards, 26% of refrigerator handles, 23% of water fountain buttons, and 21% of vending machine buttons, in a study of office buildings conducted by Kimberly-Clark with microbiology professor Charles Gerba of the University of Arizona.

On the other hand, Google resorts to visual cues in its cafeterias to help encourage healthier eating, according to a Fast Company account.  Salad bars are upfront and dessert bars are last because people tend to fill up with what they see first. Signs encourage the use of smaller plates, with good effect—it has risen by half, to 32% of all plate traffic. Green tags on healthier choices suggest “go” and red tags on desserts imply “moderation.” If that’s not enough, desserts are the size of three bites. Bottled water in the company refrigerator is at eye level, which grew its uptake by 47%.

Some of what Google does parallels recommendations made by Cornell University’s Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs’ initiative. The goal is to encourage students to eat smarter in school. Among their successes: fruit sales rose by up to 102% after being highlighted; white milk sales jumped up to 46% once put in the first position in lunchroom coolers; 35% more students ate “healthy items” once a “healthy choices only” convenience line was created.

How should supermarkets react to these opposing trends? In two ways, we believe at The Lempert Report:

  • For the majority of time-pressed America, offer convenient grab-and-go snack and lunch solutions, which shoppers could pick up when buying dinner the night before or on the way into the office.
  • Make it easy for shoppers to find and assemble healthful choices—because the paternalistic concern shown in select schools and offices will carry over and become more significant. Working parents also want to know they can have healthful snacks on hand for when kids come home from school.