They may enjoy a reputation for fine dining and gourmet tastes, but French consumers are increasingly looking at price tags when grocery shopping. With obesity on the rise and environmental concerns moving up the agenda, they are also demanding that food manufacturers act responsibly, as Peter Crosskey reports.

Are you a ‘hygiéniste’, voluptuous, vulnerable or a minimalist? Researchers recently profiled these four main French consumer types to a food industry plenary session organised by national food industry manufacturers’ association ANIA.

The audience comprised about 800 company heads: the Paris event attracted no fewer than four government ministers. All present came to hear the nation’s verdict on its food manufacturers, prepared by TNS Sofres in a two-part study. They came away with a creditable 79% public vote of confidence in their work, but the golden days of an unquestioning 90% carte blanche are just memories now.

The biggest single consumer concern is food pricing (75%), even though 62% conceded that they eat better now than in previous years. An overwhelming 83% linked good health to good diet, taking a proactive view rather than seeking ready made solutions offered by the food industry.

More than two thirds blamed an amalgam of television, lack of exercise and snacking for the country’s rising tide of obesity. Interestingly the French public thinks of food manufacturers more highly than either food retailers or banks.

There is widespread public recognition that the food industry has improved health checks (79%), made food easier to prepare (73%) and offers a wider variety of foodstuffs (72%). Most consumers are willing to pay more for environmentally sensitive food production (54%) or the products of French agriculture (manufactured or otherwise), but fewer than one in four expressed any interest in organic food (24%) or innovative products (14%).

Top consumer issues were rising obesity rates (57%), the environment – notably greenhouse gas emissions and overpackaging (56%), as well as on-pack nutritional statements. While French manufacturers showed themselves to be in tune with end users on most issues, the public felt they ‘could do better’ in these areas.

The majority of French consumers want a meal to be balanced and healthy (51%), ahead of being a social occasion (19%). Very few are concerned to make meals fast (6%) or cheap (3%).

Balancing all these parameters in a domestic budget is complicated by long-term factors prevailing across western Europe in its entirety. In France, the government’s long-term statistics record that over the past 40 years, the cost of dietary fat content has halved while the price of fresh produce has risen by a third.

Meeting these challenges head-on is the largest consumer profile group, the clean-living ‘hygiénistes’ (32%). Predominantly women, they are often middle-aged and well educated. Their priority is to eat a healthy and balanced diet, and this group also enjoys sporting activities while keeping sight of food as a social pleasure.

Voluptuous consumers (28%) enjoy their food as a quick and easy way to spend time together. Generally young, educated and in high income brackets, they count food as one of life’s pleasures. They are the most likely to yield to impulse without worrying too much about the consequences.

On the other hand, vulnerable consumers (24%) are driven by the need for a healthy, balanced diet as well as dependable health care. Primarily an older age group, this sector can be expected to grow in coming years as western Europe populations age.

Minimalists (16%) are irreducible singles on average or below-average incomes. For them, food lacks a health or social dimension, existing in a restricted and somewhat utilitarian framework.

Women, pensioners and middle management are leading the battle for quality and balance in their diet. Young people, workers and men are trailing, possibly a more difficult audience to reach effectively due to limited hands-on contact with food beyond eating it.

There is a mirror image to this in the problems that French food firms are encountering when trying to recruit trained staff. For a companion study, TNS Sofres interviewed 250 food company heads, most of whom were preoccupied with attracting suitably motivated recruits or apprentices. Recruitment came well ahead of packaging reduction, supplier relations, compliance, customer relations or new product development as a priority in their business life.

A majority (69%) were optimistic for their businesses and their degree of optimism increased with the size of their business. Barely more than half (51%) were optimistic for the French food industry and little more than a third (36%) were optimistic about the French economy.

Their primary strategy to improve margins will be to slash energy costs (60%), well ahead of process automation improvements (33%), shedding staff (25%) or simplifying formulations (21%), while only 10% mentioned moving production to a cheaper cost base country. In fact, for 94% of those interviewed, the image of French products was a positive factor on the home market.

While the ‘Made in France’ label was cited as a plus on European markets (82%) or world markets (77%), many executives conceded that they often feel a lack of competitiveness on export markets. In fact, despite the country’s obsession with food, the manufacturing sector is surprisingly home-focused.

Of those business chiefs interviewed, 86% do not export, while only 10% earn more than one tenth of their sales abroad. One in five manufacturers would gladly raise the export profile of French food manufactures to match that of French agricultural commodities.

If 86% sounds like a freak result, bear in mind that much of the French food industry is SME-based and highly diverse. Provisional government statistics for 2005 record 3,111 food manufacturers employing more than 20 staff and with combined sales of EUR126bn (US$158bn). Of this total, however, less than 18% was earned in export markets.