business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

More than ever, the average is dwindling in size and importance as the population becomes more polarized. We can see it in so many places beyond politics. It’s in the spread in household incomes, the wildly different choices made in television viewing among different demographic groups and the markedly different uses of technology. And now we find it in what we eat for dinner.

Newsweek’s current issue examines: “The Dinner Divide: How our Foodie Obsession is Driving Americans Apart.” That might be a little overstated, but not by much. The cover story looks into the eating habits of some families in Brooklyn, NY, and the range is startling. Through the article we visit with fully committed locavores who spend countless hours each day finding local foods - usually organic - to feed their families. And we visit families struggling to make ends meet or even find time to get some quick nutrition into the mouths of a busy family.

Their habits couldn’t be more different or more important. It’s almost shocking that these families live in such close proximity to each other, but that’s probably a usual occurrence and not just in densely populated areas like Brooklyn.

I honestly believe the food industry understands this issue. More than ever retailers target key segments of consumers, understanding the value equation they bring to the aisles differs starkly by neighborhood, family or even mood. Manufacturers are aware also, which explains why so many have expanded their portfolios to include products that range from traditional to new food movements.

But the truth is also that we can’t ever know this well enough because this new reality of polarized behaviors impacts everything.

Far too often we see studies or articles documenting consumer behavior or activity and we have to understand the context that surrounds it. It was startling in just the last few days to see news stories about increased holiday spending on Black Friday juxtaposed with reports on the growing number of homeowners who simply stop paying their mortgages. Both are true at the same time.

The truth is there are shoppers moving ever more upscale or more deeply into food buying habits that require more time, more care, more knowledge and many times more money. And the truth is that there are shoppers moving ever more strongly in the direction of penny pinching, looking for ways to get calories into their family’s bellies as inexpensively as possible.

I got a personal reminder of this last week when a quote of mine appeared in Everyday with Rachael Ray. Asked to comment on supermarket trends for 2011, my responses were all about price, price and price. So after talking about price for most of my interview I suggested that flavorful ethnic foods that are lower in calories will be a growing trend. I added that supermarkets will continue to look for new products and services to enhance the shopping experience for busy moms. Everyday (which is a terrific magazine, in my opinion) isn’t about price, it’s about making interesting meals. So I wasn’t surprised that the comments about ethnic foods and new services made the article, while the price part didn’t. And in the context of Everyday, that was the right decision.

There is no typical trend, just as there is no typical shopper, store or product. It’s a caution we need to remind ourselves as we read anything these days, whether it’s a new consumer study or an article in Everyday with Rachael Ray. The average doesn’t matter, the context does. The families Newsweek profiled in Brooklyn would all provide a starkly different view of the world of food right now and all would be true. You need context to understand what is true for you.

These days you have to ask your questions carefully and consider the answers—and the averages—even more carefully.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His new book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available by clicking here .
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