The millennial path of destruction allegedly continues, with those young consumers now taking blame for the decline in the popularity of canned tuna — a product that joins a casualty list that already includes diamonds and restaurants such as Applebee’s. (Pretty soon, one suspects, millennials will be blamed for not keeping alive the Velvet Elvis industry, letting another part of treasured Americana die off.)
Say what you will about canned tuna — a staple of weekend lunches with the grandparents, and the most popular form of U.S. seafood from about the end of World War II until the end of the 20th century — but the real story here is not how millennials are killing off another great consumer tradition (yawn), but how a consumer segment is flexing its buying power when it comes to grocery retail.
Before we get to that, let’s review the newest charges leveled against millennials. According to reports, canned tuna consumption in the U.S. — as measured by the federal Department of Agriculture — declined 42 percent per capita between 1986 and 2016. The industry reportedly blames millennials and their preferences for fresh and convenient seafood options.
Opening a can of tuna is not the most difficult task in the world — the greatest danger, arguably, is not getting any of that tuna juice on your clothes, which can result in a peculiar smell following you around for the rest of the afternoon — but the canned tuna industry has an answer for that.
“A lot of millennials don't even own can openers," Andy Mecs, the vice president of marketing and innovation for StarKist, told The Wall Street Journal in a story this week. In fact, can openers are “passe” among those younger consumers, according to what Ken Harris, managing partner at Cadent Consulting Group, told CNBC.
Harris also identified another problem for the industry: packaging and convenience. According to what he told CNBC, “the traditional companies have fallen behind because it's a low-margin business, and investing in packaging falls low on the list of priorities." According to Harris, the main priority for canned tuna companies should be creating "packaging that makes it easy to remove and drain the tuna." And brands are pursuing tuna pouches that do not require openers for access — StarKist told CNBC that sales of its pouches are increasing by 20 percent annually.
Millennials apparently also have higher expectations than previous generations when it comes to the quality of canned tuna and how the meat is caught.
That’s why, according to the CNBC report, “Bumble Bee and StarKist both have premium brands that they market as sustainable.” As well, “Upstarts like Wild Planet Foods and Safe Catch market their tuna as safer and higher quality, and are slowly eating into the big three's market share," The WSJ said. "According to Nielsen data as of October, smaller brands (not including private labels) control 6.3 percent of the market, up from 3.7 percent in 2014.”
That fits into a larger trend. The Organic Trade Association said that 52 percent of consumers who prefer organic products are millennials — and that such consumers eat vegetables 52 percent more often than do older generations.
Retailers who do not take into account those shifting trends risk losing revenue. As an example, take bridge millennials, a consumer segment on which PYMNTS research has increasingly focused.
At 30 to 40 years of age, bridge millennials are younger than Gen X-ers but older than most millennials, tend to have finished their educations (and tend toward being affluent and well-educated), have settled into stable careers and are beginning to check off life milestone markers like marriages, families and home buying. And they are incredibly mobile connected – particularly when it comes to making choices about purchases. That means they have money to spend and are good at product research, two factors that can impact sales of packaged tuna.
Bridge millennials are not afraid to change their food sources, either — 27 percent of them recently changed their grocery stores, in fact, according to the PYMNTS Enterprise Grocery Report. Additionally, 48 percent of bridge millennials prefer to shop online — that provides an opportunity, perhaps, for the canned tuna industry, assuming brands can give those consumers a robust online and mobile source of information about the sustainable practices behind their products, along with other relevant or desired data.
Blaming millennials for products not selling as well as they used to is okay, but only to a very limited degree. Much better is responding to their consumer preferences — which, after all, will also inform how consumers younger than millennials will shop, buy and eat.