Phil Lempert, better known as The Supermarket Guru to his legions of readers, radio listeners and TV viewers, has singlehandedly created an information niche where hunger for knowledge meets food for thought.

Lempert recently passed the 30-year mark as a trend watcher and analyst for the retail grocery and food industries. It’s a role he invented and has expanded and re-defined over the years to include expert analysis of consumer behavior, marketing trends, new products and the changing retail landscape. 

Message in a Bottle ― of Olive Oil

As an advisor to consumers, brands and companies, Lempert works both the B2C and B2B sides of the grocery aisle. Reasoning that a rising tide lifts all boats, he alerts consumers and business leaders alike to impending corporate and consumer trends. His goal? Empower players at every step of the food chain to create better products and make more educated marketing and purchasing decisions.

It’s icing on the cake that Lempert’s insights are unfailingly useful and entertaining. He has appeared on The View, The Oprah Winfrey Show, 20/20, CNN and FOX Business, and was the food trends editor for The Today Show.

We caught up with Lempert recently to talk grocery trends, digital media and WOW product experiences and also scored an unexpected recommendation on where to find the world’s best olive oil.  

Sobel: Your grandfather had a dairy farm in Belleville, NJ and you worked at McDonald’s and Howard Johnson’s during high school. You graduated from Drexel University and Pratt Institute before becoming known to millions as The Supermarket Guru. Can you share your journey with us?

Lempert: I started out working for my dad selling cheeses and canned meats to the big wholesalers at the Bronx Terminal Market and the Hunts Point Market. Those buyers were no-nonsense guys: Quality and price were the only things that mattered to them — that and not letting you waste their time.  

I quickly realized that my college courses in marketing and sales were absolutely irrelevant in these situations, so I decided to go out to the supermarkets and observe actual shoppers firsthand. I saw who was buying what and what they passed by and that’s when I started to talk with customers about their purchasing experiences.

The supermarket became my laboratory and gradually I started to share my observations, first with the chain buyers and later with the industry in a bi-weekly newsletter I called The Lempert Report.

It was the first time anyone had written this type of analysis of food issues and trends and my work caught the eye of the late Phil Dougherty, the legendary advertising columnist for The New York Times. His column about The Lempert Report appeared on July 23, 1985 and the rest is history.

Sobel: At you offer food ratings, trend analysis, health advice, recipes, nutrition analysis, allergy alerts and many other resources to help consumers understand their lifestyle and shopping options. It seems like you serve both B2B and B2C audiences. Can you explain?

Lempert: Yes, we serve both audiences and it can be a challenge. The way I envision it is to see myself at the center of a triangle with retailers, brands and consumers at each of the corners. My job is to keep each group aware of what the others are doing to create a better shopping experience for everyone.

It helps to remember that about 20,000 new food and beverage items are produced each year but only about five percent of them will actually make it onto the shelves and still be around three years later.

That’s why one of my favorite sections of the website is our food reviews. Out of say, 200 products that are sent to me each week for review, I pick five to personally taste and rate. Then I share my findings in a daily video and on our website. 

Unlike other reviews, we use an open scoring system that tells brands how many points we award them in each category: taste, value, nutrition, ingredients, preparation, appearance, packaging and sustainability. 

I look forward to the day when all the products we rate achieve a score of 95 or higher because everyone will win: Shoppers will get great products and brands will cut their losses. 

Learning Opportunities

Sobel: In a recent article in "Food Business News" you advised that, “When creating new products, create memorable ‘wow’ experiences and celebrate food.”  You also counseled brands that, “knowing what type of consumer may like a new product is pivotal” and urged them to “get past the notion that everybody is going to buy your product.” Can you elaborate?

Connecting with Bill Sobel
Lempert: In today's crowded food world, it's critical that products stand out as unique and special so that consumers will value and buy them. Do we really need 100+ bottles of olive oil in a conventional supermarket? Absolutely not! Most of them are the same and very few are standouts.

In fact, if you read the labels you’ll learn that most so-called Italian olive oils contain cheaper oil from other countries and are merely packed in Italy. By the way, that’s how I discovered that the aroma and taste of French olive oils are superior to those which tout their Italian heritage. 

At the same time that brands are proliferating, supermarkets are also getting smaller. Today’s stores average about 40,000 sq. ft. and if trends continue, the grocery store of the future will shrink to about half that size.  

As smaller stores lead to more curated food shopping experiences, the retailer will eliminate “me, too” products in favor of unique ones that will attract particular shoppers. The net effect is that products will truly have to offer that WOW factor to remain in distribution.  

This represents a major change from the way that companies like Procter & Gamble used to do business: produce an outstanding product, mail a sample to every home in America and quickly own the category. 

Today we have become more multicultural, have a better understanding of foods, care more about health and nutrition and are more particular about our tastes. Our shopping patterns have evolved and there’s no turning back.

Sobel: Let’s close by discussing “2015 Outlook: The Customer Experience is Key.” In it, the author Ken Morris concluded that, “With the availability of innovative technology, pervasive mobile devices and always-connected consumers, there continue to be limitless opportunities for retailers to enhance the shopping experience.” Sounds like things will stay interesting in retail as we see further expansion of the personalized customer experience. Do you agree?

Lempert: Our smartphones and watches are getting smarter and smarter for food-related uses. Recipes, sustainability ratings, freshness, ingredient identification, food safety issues and even determining if a food is gluten free are bringing technology and food closer together to create a much richer shopping experience.

I see a lot of services out there like Instacart and Blue Apron challenging the retail environment and stealing away food dollars. For a retailer to be successful in this overcrowded marketplace I'll go back to what I said before — it had better be a WOW experience if you want shoppers to stay.