Target’s Chief Food, Essentials and Beauty Officer on grocery aisle innovation

NEW YORK (AP) — Target has revamped its store aisles since the COVID-19 pandemic with items ranging from Korean food and mocktails to barbecue-flavored trail mixes, as the discount retailer targets shoppers who want to experiment while staying on a budget.

Like many retailers, Target found that some habits its customers acquired during the height of the public health crisis, such as snacking and an interest in new flavors, have survived the pandemic. But the inflation that pushed up food prices last year, while having abated, still has consumers looking for ways to stretch their dollars.

Led by Rick Gomez, Target’s chief food, essentials and beauty officer, the Minneapolis-based retailer plans to introduce up to 2,000 new foods and beverages this year. The number includes products from retail labels Good & Gather, Market Pantry and Favorite Day, as well as national and emerging brands.

The need to innovate coexists with the focus on affordability. In January, Target launched a line called Dealworthy with nearly 400 tech accessories, toiletries and other basic items, most of which cost less than $10. The company announced last week that it was cutting prices on 5,000 food, beverage and essential household products.

The stakes are high: 23% of Target’s total sales come from food and beverages, the second-largest category behind beauty products and home goods, according to the company’s most recent annual report.

The Associated Press recently interviewed Gomez about food trends, the effect of inflation and social media on shopping behavior and other topics. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. What is your overall food and beverage strategy?

A. We’re moving from not just selling food to actually celebrating food. What that means for us is that we have to lean on our range of what we sell. We see ourselves as curators, with a magical mix of big national brands, our own brands that are exclusive, but also small emerging brands that are on track. We lean on freshness, with flowers and products that, when you walk into this section, feel alive, seasonal and fresh. And we strive for affordability to ensure our guests can get what they want.

Q. What dietary habits have persisted as a result of the pandemic?

A. Snack and enjoy. During the pandemic, people were looking for some happiness as we were all quarantined at home. And so we developed Favorite Day. And it’s really about savory, delicious treats. Well, we’re out of that pandemic and we see this trend continuing.

Q. Which foods have lower inflation? Which ones are problematic?

A. We are seeing some prices drop in some areas, such as meat, seafood and eggs, while we are still seeing inflation in the dry-packed section of the store, with items such as candy.

Q. How does inflation impact the purchasing behavior of Target customers?

A. We see many different strategies to stretch the budget. Some people are looking for the big benefit package. That has a better value, price per ounce or price per unit. Others are looking for opening prices where they simply want the lowest priced item in the category. Some are looking to private label, and we’re seeing growth in our own brands… Good & Gather, Favorite Day. Market Pantry. It’s one of the reasons why we just launched a new brand called Dealworthy.

Q. What are some food trends Target is embracing?

A. We have some fun new trail mixes: dill pickle flavored trail mix and barbecue flavored trail mix. We have some innovation in global flavors. It started during the pandemic, and they were trying to get out of the food rut and looking for new flavors. And we’ve seen growth in areas like Korean food and Indian soul food. One of the items this summer is Italian gelato-filled macarons under Favorite Day.

Q. How has TikTok accelerated the pace of food fads?

A. There are new trends all the time. What has changed lately is that the pace of change is becoming faster and faster, driven by social media and platforms like TikTok. On the beverage side, we are seeing growth in non-alcoholic beverages. That’s why we partnered with Sechey to deliver a line of non-alcoholic beers, mocktails. We also see trends emerging very quickly in the field of well-being. So we’ve seen explosive growth on Olipop, a better-for-you soft drink. We are also launching an exclusive candy line called Tandy, which provides health benefits in digestion, relaxation, focus and energy.

Q. How does Target stay on top of trends?

A. We are constantly listening to our guests and listening for trends. We have a team that monitors social media, looks for what’s new and what’s trending, and tries to take advantage of that. We have a team of world-class scientists. But then there is also a micro trend such as with cherry juice. We already have these in our range. We can just exhibit it and capitalize on that trend.

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