Understanding consumer behaviour: What, where, and how do Europeans like to eat?

By Flora Southey contact

- Last updated on GMT

It is estimated that a consumer stands in front of a product for between three to five seconds before deciding whether to purchase it. GettyImages/Danilin
It is estimated that a consumer stands in front of a product for between three to five seconds before deciding whether to purchase it. GettyImages/Danilin

Related tags: consumer behaviour

From wellness to clean label and consumer empowerment, consultancy The Little Big Collective shares insights into shoppers’ purchasing decisions. “It’s important we understand the key [drivers] influencing how consumers behave,” says founder Vanessa Mayneris.

It is estimated that a consumer stands in front of a product for between three to five seconds before deciding whether to purchase it.

During this brief period, a lot goes on behind the scenes, according to Vanessa Mayneris, founder of UK-based F&B consultancy The Little Big Collective.

Not only will shoppers be recalling information previously learnt about a food category or brand, but if, for example, they are purchasing an evening meal, they could be thinking about potential time constraints, and the food preferences of other people partaking.  

“It’s important we understand the key [drivers] influencing how consumers behave,” ​Mayneris told delegates at a recent European Food Forum (EFF) event.

Food is the best medicine

The Little Big Collective has observed a growing trend for healthy foods, as consumers look to eat more fruits and vegetables. Not only are shoppers concerned by the positive impacts such foods can have on the digestive system and brain, but they see healthy products as a way of ensuring long-term health, according to Mayneris.

This is reflected in the market, the founder continued: “Lots of different products are trying to give people more healthy food.” ​This extends to reformulation, we were told. Consumers are increasingly wary of high-sugar products, while opting for high-protein offerings.

sugar Fodor90
Consumers are wary of high-sugar products. GettyImages/Fodor90

As for fat, ‘they’re not too worried’, said the consultancy founder. “Fat is coming back. People think that in reasonable quantities, fat is good.”

This is perhaps unsurprising given the growing number of people following the ketogenic diet​ – a way of eating that champions high-fat, moderate-protein, and low-carbohydrate foods.

Clean label

While lacking a clear definition, ‘clean label’ is largely interpreted by industry as an absence of artificial ingredients, such as synthetic colours, sweeteners, flavours, and preservatives.

Consumers are particularly concerned by the amount of additives and preservatives​ in food and drink products, Mayneris told delegates at the event. “There is a really big trend of people looking [to avoid ingredients] they don’t understand, and that aren’t in their kitchen cupboard. That’s what really interests them.”

nutrition labelling Goran13
Consumers are particularly concerned by the amount of additives and preservatives in food and drink products. GettyImages/Goran13

However, The Little Big Collective founder believes industry and consumers define ‘clean label’ in different ways. For the consumer, being free of artificial ingredients is important, but so is being local, championing good animal welfare, and transparency.

“You really need to navigate what clean label means and what people really want out of the product, because sometimes it’s not the same thing.”

Consumer empowerment

The consultancy has increasingly observed the importance of empowerment for consumers. “They want to have an impact on the current food system and on what is being sold.”

French smartphone app Yuka​ is an example of technology offering consumer empowerment. Consumers scan the barcodes of food and personal care products, the app rates the item and offers detailed information to help consumers understand the health of each product.

Where a product is deemed to have a negative impact on the consumer’s health, the app recommends a healthier alternative.

Mayneris said the app has had a ‘real impact’. “A lot of brands and retailers are starting to change their products to meet the app’s requirements. So there is a possibility of consumers pushing for change.”

supermarket app smartphone cyano66
Yuka is an example of technology providing consumer empowerment. GettyImages/cyano66

Another example of consumer empowerment is exemplified by French food brand C’est qui le Patron​. In the UK, the brand is marketing itself as The Consumer Brand.

C’est qui le Patron asks consumer shareholders to vote on which type of product they want, which production methods they prefer, and the quality they are willing to pay for. Consumer shareholders are also asked how much farmers should be paid for their products.

The brand has produced a line of offerings since its 2016 launch, including milk, honey, apple juice, chocolate, flour, wine, sardines, pizza, yoghurt, chicken, baguettes, and butter.

“These are the kinds of ways consumers can be empowered so they buy…the product that they want,” ​said Mayneris.

Plant-based eating

In Europe, between just 2-10% of the population is vegetarian. As a result, plant-based food brands are looking to appeal to the larger market of flexitarian consumers.

“People want to eat more vegetables,” ​The Little Big Collective founder told delegates. However, not all plant-based offerings are up to scratch. Often, plant-based meat substitutes are expensive and contain ‘lots of’ additives to achieve meat mimicry, we were told.

plantbased Booblgum
Not all plant-based offerings are up to scratch from a nutrition perspective. GettyImges/Booblgum

There are other ways consumers can be ‘nudged’ to increase vegetable intake, however. Foodservice and the hospitality sector can play a significant role here, suggested Mayneris.

The sector can reduce the size of its meat portions, incorporate a plant-based day per week, of put plant-based dishes in self-service. The founder also suggested restaurants mix in meat-free items within the conventional menu, rather than creating a separate plant-based menu.

“These are the nudging elements that will make, piece by piece…a switch in behaviour. It’s really important to start with foodservice, because what people see [out of the home], they can try at home.” 

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