Food is a potent carrier of culture, community, and identity for every group. For Black Americans, food binds families and communities as the centerpiece of gatherings such as Sunday dinners, crayfish boils, and graduation dinners.
While the function of food is common across groups, equitable access is not. Inequitable food access holds back human development and creates disparate health outcomes for Black Americans. Beyond considerations of equity, the strategic stakes for food retailers and restaurants are also significant. Black consumers’ spending on food is expected to grow by 5 percent per year, and our analysis shows that $340 billion in cumulative spending (in nominal dollars) will be at stake from 2022 to 2030.
Our research on Black consumers’ experiences with food, conducted in 2021, revealed five preferences. Black consumers want offerings that are culturally relevant and convenient, facilitate healthy habits, demonstrate good value for the price, and allow them to experience new foods.
Black consumers want offerings that are culturally relevant and convenient, facilitate healthy habits, demonstrate good value for the price, and allow them to experience new foods.
Companies can better meet these preferences and challenges by expanding their offerings with Black consumers in mind, frequently testing new concepts and offerings, investing in e-commerce, optimizing their physical presence in Black communities, upgrading in-store experiences, and engaging with customers to build loyalty. These strategies are specific to grocery retailers and restaurants and should be implemented in parallel with overall efforts to build diverse organizations that facilitate those equity goals. The health of communities is at stake.
Needs and preferences that drive Black consumers’ food spending
Food insecurity—the lack of reliable access to affordable, nutritious food—disproportionately affects Black Americans: over the past 20 years, Black households have been twice as likely as White households to experience food insecurity.
This dynamic exists even in the largest markets for Black consumer food spend (Exhibit 1).
At the same time, supermarket redlining—the disinclination of major grocery chains to open or maintain stores in disproportionately Black, low-income communities—limits choices while driving up prices for the food options that are available. Counties with higher-than-average Black populations tend to have more convenience stores and fewer fresh food options compared to counties with lower-than-average Black populations. Those counties have about 1.2 convenience stores for every convenience store in a county with a lower-than-average Black population.
Serving Black consumers equitably requires more than simply opening grocery stores. Retailers and restaurants should also respond to Black consumers’ preferences. For example, Black consumers value culturally relevant products, healthy habits, convenience, value for money, and experimentation more than non-Black consumers do (Exhibit 2).
Consider that Black consumers’ spending on food is projected to grow by 5 percent per year from an estimated $120 billion in 2021 to up to $200 billion in 2030 (in nominal dollars). Notably, $20 billion to $40 billion of annual spending will come from dissatisfied consumers. Companies that win these consumers’ dollars and loyalty could attract a share of this spend and—according to our analysis—increase their spending on food by $4 billion to $7 billion per year. This opportunity will be worth $340 billion from 2022 to 2030.
Culturally relevant offerings
Cultural affinity matters. Consumption driven by cultural and social values is on the rise in the United States. Black consumers surveyed by McKinsey indicated that they seek restaurants that are related to their cultural or national heritage; they are nearly twice as likely as non-Black respondents to choose a restaurant if it offers a menu specializing in food from their culture or country of origin and four times as likely as non-Black respondents to switch their spending to a restaurant or grocery store if it is Black-owned.
Serving Black consumers equitably requires more than simply opening grocery stores. Retailers and restaurants should also respond to Black consumers’ preferences.
Although a growing number of grocery chains stock Black-owned food brands, these brands are not necessarily identifiable as Black-owned to consumers. This is a missed opportunity for brands and retailers. Grocery stores also tend to relegate their culturally diverse foods to an aisle—or a few—dedicated to ethnic and international foods,
which forces Black consumers into a different shopping experience than the average shopper.
The COVID-19 pandemic has further accelerated an existing shift toward healthier food options for Black Americans.
Consider that while only 3 percent of the general population is vegetarian or vegan, 8 percent of Black Americans are.
Our research shows that Black respondents prioritize organic options and fresh food, allocating a higher share of their grocery spending to fresh produce, meat, and seafood instead of frozen food or beverages. When dining out, most Black respondents are eight to 15 percentage points more likely to prioritize restaurants that use fresh and healthy (or “clean”) ingredients.
Most large grocery stores already incorporate customer feedback and data in merchandising decisions. However, brands’ promotion and advertising strategies often translate into more advertising for less-healthy, more-processed foods targeted at Black and Hispanic and Latino consumers. This dynamic can make it more difficult for Black consumers, especially those in low-income areas, to buy healthier foods despite a stated preference for them.
Black consumers look for convenience, specifically by reducing the number of grocery stores they visit and shortening the time they spend shopping either in store or via digital channels. Our survey found that in search of this convenience, Black respondents prefer to visit grocery stores with large product assortments; assortment is the third most important consideration in Black respondents’ purchasing decisions but only the seventh most important for non-Black respondents.
The drive for convenience—and safety during the COVID-19 pandemic—has shifted a significant amount of the grocery business to e-commerce. Many grocers saw 20 to 30 percent of their business shift online. Our survey showed that while brick-and-mortar stores are still the preferred channel for Black consumers’ grocery shopping, 22 percent of their grocery purchases happen online, through either the grocer’s website or a third-party delivery service. Most respondents expect their use of online services to increase or stay at the same level.
Value for money
Black consumers also place more emphasis on value for money than non-Black consumers. It is the sixth most important factor in choosing a grocery store; for non-Black respondents, it is the 16th. And when dining out, Black respondents are more likely than non-Black respondents to focus on whether the menu offers specials as well as how much food the restaurant offers for the price.
While Black consumers are cost-conscious shoppers, they are more likely to prioritize quality for the price. Forty-seven percent of Black respondents will look for products that work well, and they don’t mind paying more for them (compared to 39 percent of non-Black respondents). However, products sold in predominantly Black communities tend to carry higher prices than the same products sold elsewhere without a corresponding increase in quality, which can lead to increased purchases of unhealthy foods and more visits to fast-food restaurants as Black families are forced to make trade-offs.
New experiences with food
Finally, Black consumers enjoy experimenting with new and different foods while grocery shopping and dining out; they also seek out recommendations from their friends. More than their counterparts, Black consumers enjoy discovering new kinds of fresh produce, trying new recipes, and eating meals that reflect current food trends. In fact, Black respondents are eight percentage points more likely than non-Black respondents to want to try new produce or recipes and ten percentage points more likely to choose a full-service restaurant because it offers on-trend menu items. This preference for exploration might explain why Black consumers continue to seek out engaging and supportive customer experiences when in store. Indeed, Black respondents are ten percentage points more likely than non-Black respondents to examine products in store and seven percentage points more likely to choose a store where they can get help or advice.
Strategies to meet Black consumers’ needs
Several strategies can help companies respond to Black consumers’ preferences and meet their needs. While the relationship between businesses and consumers should continuously evolve, decision makers should implement these strategies now.
Black consumers are willing to go outside their comfort zone to experiment with and explore new foods, but they still want healthy options that evoke Black culture and community. Grocery stores and restaurants can meet this need by expanding their offerings to include more culturally relevant and healthy food options.
Grocery stores should dedicate more shelf space and in-store events (such as demonstrations and pop-ups) to culturally diverse foods, including products from Black-owned brands. Black-owned food brands often have strong identities and histories that resonate with Black consumers more deeply than general food products do. Stores should support these brands with tactics such as in-store events and merchandise them within the existing aisle structure (instead of within ethnic aisles) to ensure that Black consumers have the same shopping experience as White shoppers. Companies could also go further by developing inclusive procurement practices and investing in Black-owned brands to help them scale.
One major grocery chain provided shelf space to almost 40 local vendors in its store in a historically Black neighborhood. Positive results from this store prompted the chain to merchandise the vendors’ products in multiple locations throughout the city. This chain also partnered with a specialty vendor to offer West African foods in 50 of its locations across the country.
That specialty vendor has since expanded its products to four other national grocery chains.
Create healthy-food test kitchens—and aisles
Novel, healthy concepts can not only meet Black consumers’ demand for healthy food but also help grocery stores and restaurants respond to Black consumers’ greater interest in trying new offerings. Retailers, food brands, and restaurants can all use regional customer insights to adapt trends in wellness and healthy cooking for Black consumers’ preferences.
Retailers and restaurants can engage Black consumers by expanding new offerings. For example, one Black-owned store in Washington, DC, runs an interactive spice bar that creates unique flavor combinations with spices and herbs. The online store also releases a curated box of spices every month to regularly give customers new experiences. To support Black entrepreneurship, the store has also hosted hundreds of free pop-ups for Black-owned businesses.
Optimize physical presence in underserved communities
Convenience for Black consumers is intertwined with access to quality options. For this reason, grocery stores and restaurants should focus on addressing food insecurity in underserved Black communities, particularly food deserts, by optimizing their physical presence to address local needs.
In expanding their physical footprints, grocery stores should gather localized insights to make data-driven decisions on where to place new locations as well as which specific products, store formats, and customer service models would work best for these predominantly Black communities. For example, access ratings and scorecards can help companies make sure they are not perpetuating biased footprint decisions that reinforce supermarket redlining and negatively affect Black consumers and communities.
Innovative alternatives to small-format grocery stores (for example, mobile markets) can be an effective way to bring fresh, affordable foods to underserved communities and build relationships with Black consumers by serving those specific neighborhoods well. For instance, one regional grocery chain recently introduced mobile markets in food-insecure neighborhoods that have no access to full-service grocery stores.
Innovative alternatives to small-format grocery stores can be an effective way to bring fresh, affordable foods to underserved communities and build relationships with Black consumers.
Invest in e-commerce
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, retailers and restaurants had to adapt their services to accommodate the surge of online purchasing and ordering. The trend is unlikely to reverse.
Grocers and restaurants should invest in scaling their e-commerce offerings through in-house solutions or partnerships with third-party grocery and food delivery services. Joining ecosystems and forming these partnerships can provide quick access to e-commerce capabilities such as scale and infrastructure. For companies with sufficient resources and commitment, investments in in-house e-commerce platforms can help build direct relationships with customers, access real-time customer data, and experiment and innovate as needed.
When done right, e-commerce makes the shopping process more convenient for Black consumers. Infrastructure for curbside and in-store pickup can create a seamless experience for customers and for retailers and restaurants.
Elevate in-store experiences
Achieving better in-store experiences for Black consumers requires changes to the human elements of the store as well as to the decidedly nonhuman.
To ensure that Black consumers feel welcome and have the same shopping experience as other consumers, companies should invest in policies and customer service training on topics such as anti–racial profiling. Store layouts should also be designed so products targeted toward Black consumers are displayed and presented with the same care and approach as other products.
For both restaurants and grocery stores, balancing tech-enabled store elements and supportive staff is essential. One grocery chain has begun to free up staff for customer interactions by implementing mobile-checkout technology. In restaurants, contactless ordering is becoming the standard. For financial and operational reasons, restaurant decision makers should consider going beyond digital menus and reservations to allow customers to both order their meals and settle their bills digitally. Fully integrated restaurant systems free service staff to focus on guest experience and speed up table turnover.
Engage with Black consumers to earn their loyalty
Retailers and restaurants should engage Black consumers and build loyalty. In addition to offering convenience, e-commerce platforms can help retailers and restaurants get closer to consumers and offer inclusive, personalized, and localized advertising and promotions on the products Black consumers value. For instance, e-commerce platforms can help highlight Black-owned brands and new culturally relevant menu items and encourage consumers to explore food and recipes. One national grocery chain responded to the growing interest in healthy living by launching a program that helps consumers set a personal, physical, or spiritual intention for the year in exchange for a chance to win a bundle of health and wellness products.
Because Black consumers are more likely than their non-Black counterparts to seek out recommendations from friends and family before visiting a new grocery store or restaurant, referral-based promotions and offers can help grocery chains and restaurants build their word-of-mouth strategies, as long as those promotions are supported by products that fit Black consumers’ preferences.
Equitable access to food is more than a basic need. It is a way to help Black consumers build the food cultures that are culturally and emotionally resonant without constraints. The key is to listen to what Black consumers want and respond.