Will Albertsons’ surprise purchase of Plated trigger a run in supermarket-meal kit service marriages?


On draft day in the US National Football League, when professional American football teams select new players from the college ranks, speculation is always rife about which team will be the first to select a quarterback. When one team does, it often triggers a “run” where the fear of missing out kicks in and all of a sudden a number of quarterbacks are selected in quick succession.

The same scenario may play out in the supermarket trade for meal kit services. Albertsons’ surprise purchase of the Plated meal kit service for $300m could easily trigger a run for other industry players like Blue Apron, HelloFresh, Home Chef and more by the likes of supermarket chains like Kroger or Publix.

Plated: an entrepreneurial success story

Plated is the kind of entrepreneurial success story that Hollywood makes movies about. Ranked as one of the five largest meal kit delivery services in the US, Plated was created in January 2012 by a pair of business school buddies with big ideas and little money. The company went from near death to overnight success partly thanks to a May 2014 appearance on ABC’s “Shark Tank” television show which created buzz for the company and concept.

The co-founders of Plated came home with a Shark Tank deal from billionaire technology investor Mark Cuban (that later fell apart), but the icing on the cake was the “Shark Tank bump” that Plated experienced. The brand generated more revenue in the month following the Shark Tank appearance than for the entire two-year period preceding the appearance. $95m in venture capital later (from various sources) and Plated was on its way.

Disruptive competitors like Plated keep supermarket CEOs up at night. The supermarket trade has learned to live with competition from restaurants and takeout; but competition from meal kit delivery services that do both the shopping and delivery for consumers hits closer to home.

Meal kit delivery services crystallise the fear that consumers could eventually bypass the supermarket altogether for mealtime solutions. Supermarkets have been obsessed with mealtime for decades, coming up with new buzzwords and products like “home meal replacements” and new concepts like “grocerants” (restaurants within grocery stores) to stay relevant.

Does the meal kit market have legs?

This fear persists despite evidence that meal kit delivery services aren’t exactly printing money. The first meal kit delivery service to go public – Blue Apron – has given investors little to cheer about.

The New York, NY-based company has lost nearly half its market value since its initial public offering in June, one of the biggest declines of any IPO in 2017. With brand name recognition roughly double that of its next closest rival – Hello Fresh – (according to research firm Fluent) Blue Apron has yet to monetise that name recognition and make a profit. Customer turnover is high and the brand spends an unsustainable amount of money attracting new consumers.

But meal kit delivery services may be too promising to ignore. The unfortunate reality of the food business is that consumers love eating and talking about food a lot more than they like cooking it. Just one in 10 Americans says they love to cook, according to a new study published in the Harvard Business Review by researcher Eddie Yoon. And that number is eroding. Fifteen years earlier, Yoon found that 15% of Americans said they love to cook.

Yoon speculates that cooking could go the way of sewing, a niche activity that is largely a hobby today, but was once a vital skill that almost everyone practiced (back when people sewed their own clothing). If cooking goes in the same direction, packaged food brands are going to be in for a rude shock.

Targeting younger consumers

Supermarket retailers probably do not have the luxury of waiting around and seeing how this all plays out, especially with Amazon/Whole Foods dabbling with the meal kit delivery service concept. Absent hard data on the future direction for meal kit delivery services, operators are keenly interested in how younger consumers are reacting to the concept. Interest in meal kit delivery services tends to skew young, but many younger consumers have never even tried a meal kit delivery service.

According to a 2016 survey of American millennials ages 20-29 commissioned by the Private Label Manufacturer’s Association, 54.1% of survey respondents said they had never tried a “food box delivery service” like Blue Apron, Graze, or HelloFresh. This could quickly change given the involvement of a supermarket chain like Albertsons and its 2,300 stores, but the fact remains that nobody really knows for sure how this is going to turn out.

When it comes to meal planning, younger generations look like they might appreciate the help provided by the likes of Plated, Blue Apron, HelloFresh, and others. According to a Q3 2016 GlobalData consumer survey, millennial-age consumers are much more likely to take an ad hoc approach to meal planning than older consumers.

41% of Americans ages 25-34 say they typically purchase ingredients for main meals on the day they are preparing the main meal, versus just 7% of consumers ages 55-64. This suggests that millennials are doing a lot of last-minute “planning” of the type that meal kit delivery services can easily replace.

Could supermarket chains help cut meal kit costs?

One huge impediment for future growth is cost. Consumers are willing to pay for convenience, but only to a point. With price points of around $10 to $12 per meal from services like Blue Apron and Plated, meal kits are much more expensive than preparing a meal from scratch or assembling one from prepared supermarket foods.

The involvement of a supermarket chain like Albertsons could push those prices down through economies of scale. Some meal kit delivery services are already focusing on this issue. Dinnerly is attacking the cost issue by using fewer ingredients and repeating recipes to pass along the cost savings of bulk purchasing of ingredients. Doing so cuts the cost per meal to around $5 which the company claims makes Dinnerly “the most affordable meal kit around,” according to the brand’s website. Whether that is enough of a saving to make a difference remains to be seen.

One warning to meal delivery service buyers is to take a good look at what happened to meal assembly kitchens before diving in. About a decade ago, meal assembly kitchens looked like a huge threat to supermarkets by providing the convenience of preparing a week’s worth of meals at a time. But the Great Recession drove a stake through the concept – unemployed consumers found they had plenty of time to cook and little need or money to pay for convenience – and meal assembly kitchens died off quickly.

Meal kit delivery services have not been around long enough to prove they can survive the trying economic times that took out meal assembly kitchens. That may be the ultimate proof-of-concept.