A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jun 15, 2019

Why Businesses Are Increasingly Designing Products For Solo Households

Because both younger Millennials or Gen Xers and older Boomers are increasingly living as singles - by choice, not necessity. And they shop accordingly. JL

Ellen Byron reports in the Wall Street Journal:

35.7 million Americans live alone, 28% of households. That is up from 13% of households in 1960 and 23% in 1980. Delayed or forgone marriage, longer life expectancy, urbanization and wealth have contributed. Product makers see opportunities across this market, especially young, affluent city dwellers and aging consumers who want right-sized products.The findings aren’t that they simply want things to be smaller. Affluent, single-person households in urban areas tend to spend more per person than larger ones. They are  willing to spend more for a unit of something (and) smaller appliances but bigger closets. 
More Americans than ever are living alone these days, and many don’t want to bake full-size cakes, buy eggs by the dozen, run half-loaded dishwashers or store 24-packs of toilet paper.
“I gave up on buying bread,” says Nicole Beck, a 29-year-old public-relations manager living solo in Austin, Texas. “I’m always so annoyed that the loaf goes stale before I can use it all.”
Consumer-products companies are taking note, catering to what they see as a lucrative market for single-person households by upending generations of family-focused product development and marketing. Appliance makers are shrinking refrigerators and ovens. Food companies are producing more single-serving options. Household-product makers are revamping packaging.
“We have to go beyond the paradigm of the middle-class family of four for growth, so smaller households have been a huge focus for us,” says Jen Bentz, senior vice president of research and development for Tyson Foods Inc. Among Tyson’s offerings for the demographic are Jimmy Dean Simple Scrambles, microwavable eggs in a cup that let singles skip buying an entire carton of eggs.
Looking beyond the family of four, she says, “is a really big shift.”
Today, 35.7 million Americans live alone, 28% of households. That is up from 13% of households in 1960 and 23% in 1980, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Delayed or forgone marriage, longer life expectancy, urbanization and wealth have contributed, demographers say.
Product makers see opportunities across this market, especially young, affluent city dwellers and aging consumers who want right-sized products.
Companies are furiously researching how singles buy differently. The findings aren’t that they simply want things to be smaller.
Researchers have found many affluent, single-person households in urban areas tend to spend more per person than larger ones. They are often willing to spend more for a unit of something—twice as much, say, for chopped romaine as a whole head.
Some want smaller appliances but bigger closets, or prefer one huge roll of toilet paper over multiple backup rolls they must store somewhere. Many marketers approach single-person households with urban consumers in mind.
About three years ago, researchers on General Mills Inc.’s baking team, including its Betty Crocker unit, assumed people who lived alone would have more time to cook and bake, says Jeanine Bassett, General Mills’ vice president of global consumer insights. “But when we went out to talk to consumers, we heard the opposite,” she says. “They are busy.”Category sales for cake and brownie mixes were slipping, she says, while sales were rising quickly for individual slices of cake and brownies in the deli aisle. Betty Crocker executives realized many consumers wanted desserts that were more convenient, sold in single servings and available in many choices, leading them to launch “Mug Treats,” a singles-targeted line of desserts made by pouring a mix into a mug and microwaving it.
“You don’t want to make a 9-by-13 cake when you live alone,” Ms. Bassett says. “You’re not even walking down the baking aisle anymore.”
Single people were willing to pay more per bite for that convenience, Betty Crocker concluded. It priced a four-serving box of Mug Treats at $2.99, 75 cents a serving including frosting. That compares with 15 cents a serving without frosting for Betty Crocker’s Super Moist Yellow cake mix.
General Mills launched many products in the 1960s, when most households had children and needed many portions, Ms. Bassett says. Today, about one-third of U.S. households have children, she says. Households of one or two will increase 7% over the next five years, she says, citing General Mills data, and family households with children will contract almost 1%.
“They want us to be in their life,” she says of consumers who grew up with Betty Crocker. “We just didn’t have the right configuration.”
Toilet-paper stash
As Procter & Gamble Co. researchers watched the rise of single-person households, they noted two major segments within the group: urban millennials and aging consumers.
A giant toilet-paper roll appeals to both segments, P&G found. Young people appreciate the convenience of not having to change the roll so often, and aging consumers find a bigger roll easier to handle, the company says.
Most homes stash extra toilet paper, and P&G researchers found that small apartments have it “crammed in the weirdest places,” including under the bed, says Rob Reinerman, innovation director for its family-care business.
Its new Charmin Forever Roll is 8.7 or 12 inches in diameter, compared with roughly 5 inches for conventional rolls, and includes a free-standing stainless-steel holder. It can sit between toilet and wall—unused space in nearly any bathroom, P&G researchers found. “For a lot of the single-user households we hear from,” Mr. Reinerman says, “this will last two or three months.”
Forever Rolls, currently sold via Charmin’s website because they are still in a test phase, hold the equivalent of 24 rolls in nearly half the space, because 23 inner cardboard cores are eliminated, Mr. Reinerman says. The larger roll holds 1,700 sheets at $9.99, 0.59 cent a sheet. A six-roll “mega” pack of Charmin Ultra Soft priced out recently at 0.43 cent a sheet on Walmart . com.
P&G is targeting singles like Ms. Beck, who moved to Austin from Boston in 2017 so she could afford an adulthood milestone—living on her own. Her $1,050-a-month, 710-square-foot apartment in a new amenity-filled complex is more comfortable than the Boston residence where she paid the same rent with a roommate in about 600 square feet in an old building with no amenities. “I feel very accomplished,” she says, “now that I am able to financially live alone.”
Ms. Beck, now a few promotions later, can splurge when grocery shopping, including on pre-chopped herbs and vegetables. Salad kits, pricier than heads of lettuce, are more manageable because they save her time. And her store sells romaine only in packs of three. “Otherwise, I’m throwing away whole heads of lettuce,” says Ms. Beck, who also buys small bottles of mayonnaise and salad dressing despite their higher per-ounce cost.
Tyson Foods estimates that households with one to two people make up 59% of total U.S. buying households and about 51% of total U.S. retail food and beverage sales. Tyson expects households with one person to be among the fastest-growing U.S. consumer segments over the next 15 years, says Tyson’s Ms. Bentz.
Tyson in 2017 introduced its Jimmy Dean Simple Scrambles, which cost $2.99 a container, while a dozen eggs, at the low end, typically cost $1 to $2. “It’s exactly what you need,” says Ms. Bentz, “and scaled to the size that these folks need.”
For years, Unilever PLC’s Seventh Generation household-products brand targeted mainly young families, because research showed a first child’s birth drove many parents to start considering environmentally friendly products. The rise of single living pushed it to pursue single people, too, says Patty McGrath, Seventh Generation’s director of consumer and market insights. “We’d be delaying entry into our franchise too much,” she says, “if we’re waiting for people to have children.”
To research how single people live and shop, Ms. McGrath and her team accompany them to grocery stores, laundromats and homes. Ms. McGrath trailed a 33-year-old lawyer through a Whole Foods in Manhattan last fall, taking notes as the woman pointed out her favorite toothpaste, surface cleaners, paper towels and dish soap, most of which she preferred because of their sustainability promises.
At the lawyer’s one-bedroom apartment, Ms. McGrath toured the small kitchen and bathroom, peeking into cupboards, closets, refrigerator and medicine cabinet. “How about laundry?” Ms. McGrath asked, following the woman to the kitchen island, where a washer and dryer were concealed below. The woman held up her favorite perfumed detergent, a $45 bottle from an environmentally friendly brand.
One reason people living alone often pay more for household products they like is that they needn’t justify the expense to a partner, Ms. McGrath says. “They’re very interested in brands that promise social benefits, and that in and of itself tends to be a price premium.”
Small appliances
For generations, consumers favored appliances with the biggest capacity, so manufacturers have long boasted how many towels squeeze into a washing machine or how easily a large turkey slides into an oven. But small households usually choose appliances by finding which will best fit their space, companies say.
“They’re not trying to load every towel in from the pool,” says Mary Putman, vice president of marketing and brand for GE Appliances, which China-based Haier Group bought in 2016.
Haier hopes to build its U.S. business by targeting young urban consumers who don’t want suburban-size machines. It estimates single-person households buy about 19% of major appliances. “It’s one of the big segments that we believe in,” says Ms. Putnam.
In March, the company launched a “Born for the City” campaign, selling compact Haier appliances in Best Buy Co. showrooms in cities including Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Seattle, Houston, Cleveland, Boston and New York. Its 18-inch-wide dishwasher holds eight place settings, compared with the more typical 24-inch, 12-place-setting size. Haier’s refrigerator is 28 inches wide, down from the common 36-inch width. Sales of the compact appliances are up more than 30% in the past six weeks compared with the six weeks before the campaign, Haier says.
Whirlpool Corp.’s JennAir designed smaller versions of its luxury kitchen appliances after high-end builders complained there weren’t enough choices to fit small, fancy apartments they were constructing. JennAir in March started shipping 15-inch cooktops, half the conventional size. JennAir noted the rise in single people, many of whom live in cities, and designed it with small households in mind.
“If you live in Houston, maybe you use three of these cooktops together,” says Jon Hall, JennAir’s product and brand marketing director, “and in New York you use one.”
One thing some singles want bigger is wardrobe space, says Lisa Adams, founder of L.A. Closet Design, a Los Angeles luxury-closet firm. She says 40% of her clients live alone, a growing proportion over her 12 years in business. Single clients, she says, tend to own bigger wardrobes, want larger closets and are more willing to splurge on details such as custom display cases for shoe and handbag collections.
“It becomes more personal because you’re not having to share this space with a partner,” she says. “You can be bolder.”One client, Julie Shaub, 46, has gone both smaller and larger in the gradual transformation of her home over recent years. Ms. Shaub had Ms. Adams convert a den into a large dressing room. In the small kitchen, Ms. Shaub, a Los Angeles intensive-care nurse, installed a small Miele steam oven that she likes, though she regrets buying a small dishwasher. “I have beautiful dishes and they’re bigger—I have a hard time fitting them in.”


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