Gen-Z cohort reveals key consumption behaviours

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In my previous column on the rise of Generation Z, I touched on some of their restaurant visit behaviours. Here, I will focus on key consumption behaviours among the Gen-Z cohort, focusing on those who are aged 18 to 24 years old. This subset is also known as “front-end Gen Z.”

The list of this group’s top-15 menu items matches the list for the overall Canadian population, only in a slightly different sequence and with some interesting variations. Here’s a quick look at insights based on The NPD Group’s CREST data from August 2022:

French fries: This is the top food item on everybody’s list, Gen Z or otherwise. The incidence and trends are similar across age groups, having risen slightly over the past five years. Older consumers are more inclined to stick with traditional fries, but for Gen Z, the order is likely to be waffle, curly, or wedge fries, sweet potato fries, or poutine.

Chicken: The craze for chicken sandwiches crosses all cohorts, but it’s even more prevalent among the 18 to 24-year olds. Hot-and-spicy selections are also more popular in this crowd, a trend that crosses into the chicken-wing and fried-chicken sub-categories.

Soft Drinks: This is the favourite beverage among 18 to 24-year-old consumers, but the incidence of use has fallen steeply over the past five years. Diet carbonated soft drinks (CSDs) are much less popular, trailing the rest of the population by about 10 points, but they are trending upwards. Perhaps this is a health statement, but more likely a marketing statement related to the new product activity in this space in recent years.

Bottled Water: This is the cohort’s second most popular beverage, far outpacing the rate of consumption among older age groups. Growth in carbonated bottled water among these younger consumers is helping to sustain overall incidence levels.

Coffee: Hot brewed coffee is the number-1 item consumed by those over age 24, but isn’t even the top coffee consumed by the front-end Gen Zs. That honour falls to iced/frozen/slush coffee. Menu innovation in the cold-coffee space is shaking up the coffee market — and the entire beverage space — and attracting favoured status among younger consumers.

Other Beverages: Take everything mentioned above about bottled water and transfer it to the non-carb beverage, hot tea and beverage-alcohol space. Exciting new offerings that provide a combination of modernity, social buzz, and (potentially) functional/health benefits are contributing to a growing divide among the generations in terms of beverage consumption.

Breakfast sandwiches: This is a top food item that continues to grow in popularity across all age groups. Breakfast sandwiches are more popular among older cohorts, which is probably more about life stage than generation. The front-end Gen Zs are not yet into their working-life routines, which translates to less demand for a morning grab-and-go breakfast solution (or brewed coffee, as mentioned above). But this is the group most likely to order breakfast sandwiches outside of the morning-meal daypart, supporting the concept of all-day snacking and the blurring of traditional meal occasions.

So which generational behaviours among the front-end Gen Z consumers will continue as they mature? Will they turn into their parents (Gen X)? In my estimation, any of the differences that relate to health-related matters — such as avoidance of fat, sugar and heartburn — impact everyone at some stage, and the Gen Zs will not be immune to this reality. The differences that relate to current trends — such as chicken sandwiches, carbonated waters and pre-mixed cocktails — will depend on marketers’ ability to maintain momentum and relevance among these younger, core consumers, while expanding their reach to a wider audience.

Vince Sgabellone is a foodservice industry analyst with The NPD Group. He can be reached at vince.sgabellone@npd.com

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