Singles surge could reshape U.S. food markets

December 29, 2010

Sex was the communal experience in the 1960s, but in 2011, it could be food that brings singles together.

Sex was the communal experience in the 1960s, but in 2011, it could be food that brings singles together.
Newly released data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that the number of one-person households in the country - 31.4 million - comprise 27% of all U.S. households and far outnumber the households of married couples with children.

How has this come about - and what are the implications for supermarkets, foodservice establishments and consumer packaged goods brands? Let's address the how - a combination of several long-term trends: First, over more than three decades, the number of married couples with children has stalled, while the number of single habitants has about tripled. This growth has occurred in both the younger and the senior age spectrums. Second, people who live alone are well into their 50s on average - 56.6 to be precise - largely because 45% of seniors are singles. Not surprisingly, most are female, noted Peter Francese, founder of American Demographics, and analyst at Ogilvy & Mather, in an Ad Age column.

A further surge in single households could occur once the economy rebounds, and once adult children living at home with their parents (often post-college, carrying heavy education debt, and facing underwhelming job prospects) feel able to venture on their own. The Census Bureau data show that in March 2010, some 21 million adult children (one-quarter of them age 25 and older) are living at home among 12 million established households.

F3 projects that the rate at which these adult children enter the housing market and take on responsibility for their own food shopping, will drive the pace of significant change for supermarkets, CPG brands, restaurateurs and other foodservice outlets, and kitchen designers. Sooner rather than later, more trading areas across the U.S. could well be servicing singles with some of the touches apparent in New York, Boston, Austin and other youth magnets. These same providers would also do well to concurrently meet the different needs of Boomer and senior singles.

Communal food could well be in the center of these sociable activities. Following the lead of the landmark Durgin-Park at Faneuil Hall Marketplace in downtown Boston, eateries could shape their seating and physical space to encourage interaction among singles while eating. Call it the Cheers phenomenon, where everyday people can bond over a meal. In-store dining areas in supermarkets could do this too, perhaps fostering discussion of savings strategies, new products and private label samples as starter talking points.

For the rest of the days when singles simply want to secure their convenient meal solutions on an efficient store trip, supermarket merchandising that organizes an ample assortment of single-serve packages would be a plus. Moreover, food retailers and brands should study the food buying, cooking, consumption and storage habits of singles - so they can offer the appropriate mix of foods for different singles lifestyles. These could break down as healthful, calming, fun or entertaining segments, as examples. When sized right for tighter spaces, and easily prepared to be table-ready (microwave, stovetop), items will have a greater chance of success.