A portrait of the modern consumer

Live. Shop. Use.

Those three words are the key to understanding modern consumer behaviour, a US consumer research expert told an attentive audience at the Agricultural Adaptation Council annual meeting in Guelph today.

“If we understand how people live, how they shop and how they use products, we have a pretty accurate picture of consumers today,” said Harvey Hartman, CEO of the Bellevue, Washington-based Hartman Group.


Nothing beats the influence of culture when it comes to how people live. Increasingly, people worry not just about satisfying their utilitarian needs, like eating to satisfy hunger or as nourishment, but also about fulfilling their soul needs – food as the focal point of social interaction. Food is a fundamental element of our social fabric, says Hartman, resulting in a “food culture” where activities and occasions are built around it.

Consumers crave the soulful elements of the past, such as the comfort foods of their childhoods, but they are also future-oriented, adapting them to their current environments and busy lifestyles. And finally, a key component of how people live is the democratization of the family. Gone are the days of parents making decisions and rules in the household; these days, kids have as much if not more say in what the family eats and drinks.


The rise of specialty stores is continuing – largely at the demise of traditional retailers as consumers are looking for special products, special service and knowledge and special experiences.

“Consumers are making decisions outside the store about what they’re going to buy inside the store,” says Hartman, adding that retailers should re-think traditional marketing strategies based on in-store activities. In this era of big box stores, mass marketing and mass production, people are looking for a unique retail experience when they’re shopping – and they want what they buy to give them a unique experience when they’re using it at home as well.


How consumers use products is changing as well. A user’s experience with a product will define that product in their mind. The search for unique, local food products with a story or with attributes and values consumers can identify with is turning food items into cultural artifacts. They’re a way of expressing and defining our culture. But consumers are also increasingly measuring products and manufacturers by the role they play in society. How are they involved in their community? How are they giving back? What kind of social conscience do they have?

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