Are you in the research phase of your food business? Here’s the approach I like to use whether you’re planning to open a food truck, restaurant, or food product.

Research has helped everyone, from Einstein to Mendel, and of course today’s scientists. Now, it’s going to help you. Doing research allows you to test the market, do your planning, and enter the market with a product that, people not only love, but is priced right, and there’s tremendous value.

Researching the food business.

Here’s three quick reasons why research will save your life:

1. Market Size & Number of Competitors

There are some incredibly crowded markets in the specialty food industry (any condiment, jams, jellies, crackers, etc). But where you’re going to initially focus for the first few years of your business is your local and regional area – not on a national scale. This means your research is going to be different than if you were planning a national product launch (which hopefully you’re not right now!)

2. Your Competitive Advantage

“Everyone makes jam. What makes yours different?” You’ll be able to answer this question when you do your research. Why? Because when you walk the aisles of your local grocer you know who your competitors are, what they’re offering, and why you product is much more awesome.

3. Price

This is the most important research you can do. If you’re pricing your product at $7.99 and the majority of your competition is several dollars less, you might be pricing yourself out of the market. And it’s hard to justify that much value with many food products available today. You’ll learn more about pricing later in this series.

Research shouldn’t be boring. Every step of the way, you should have a smile on your face because your heart is in it. Right? If you’re heart isn’t in it and you have no interest in doing research before you introduce your product, I’d recommend going back to the first class.

You’re ready to research. What’s the best way?

There are two types of market research to conduct before you even launch your product or go sell at a farmer’s market:

1. In-store research
2. Online research

Let’s tackle in-store research first because it’s going to be the most critical to how you position your product in the market.

Before you get started, write down a list of every grocery store in your area. This could be 1, 5, or 10+ stores. After you’ve got a long list, circle the top five stores you want to see your product in.

Where would your product sell best? The best answer is probably where you shop. Why? Because you are likely to make products you would buy, your friends would buy, and others in your income bracket would purchase.

After you finish your list, move on to the 10 easy steps to in-store research below.

The 10 Steps to Easy In-Store Research

This is by no-means the gospel of research, but it will help you walk through your grocery store with a new set of eyes. (Side note: I do this for fun)

What you need:

  • Notebook & pen (or fancy mobile device)
  • Competitor’s Worksheet (needs to be created)

An open mind – don’t get discouraged!

1. Walk up and down every aisle

Go to the grocery store when you don’t need groceries because you’ll observe more. You won’t be a good researcher if you’re getting everything on your list heading out the door. Plus, when do you get an opportunity to go to the grocery store when you’re not in a frenzy? Take this time to not only check out your competition but other products you might want to try.

2. Take note of what catches your eye and what you pick up

That leads to the next step. What catches your eye? In your product aisle and across the store? Is it the packaging? The unique flavors? The height of the product on the shelf? All of these factors combine to get you to pick up a product for a closer look. Take note of what you pick up and why.

3. Go to your competitive space (likely to be 4-8 feet of shelf space)

Now it’s time to focus on your to-be product section. It’s likely to be 4-8 feet of space  – or two gondola sections. If it’s spaghetti sauce, you might be looking at 12 feet of space.

4. Count the number of brands and products

Stand and count the number of brands and the size of their product line. Do the national brands have more products or to local brands prevail? This gives you an idea of the acceptance of locally-produced products in your market.

5. Write down information about local brands

Where are they located? Do they have a professional presence? How many products do they have? Get all the information down on your worksheet so you can use it to research online later.

6. Write down information for national brands

Do the same for national brands. While the answers may be similar, see if there are stark differences between ingredients used and packaging – there usually is.

7. Find the product you’re most drawn to in your section

Why do this? Because you’re likely to pick up your competitor’s product – whether national or local. What do you like about it? Is it the flavor, the packaging? Make note of why you picked it up.

8. Ask an employee if they sell a lot of your chosen category

If you come across an employee stocking the shelves in your section, don’t be afraid to ask questions. What are the popular brands? Has the shelf-stocker tried any of them? Many times the store employees are full of useful information to help you plan your product’s introduction.

9. Purchase three of your competitors products (include national brands if you want)

Purchasing your competitor’s products sounds crazy, right? Why should you support them? Well, it’s good will initially, but you’ve got to taste your competition. You’ve got to make your product taste better. Is it creamy? Watery? Incredibly tasty? Keep an open mind. Obviously, you’re going to think your products taste better, but your customers are going to bring up your competition in conversations. This means it’s best to know what they taste like.

10. Note if cashier says anything about local products

When your bring your items up to the cashier (and it’s not a self-checkout), see if they say anything about your purchases. Maybe they’ve tried them, just like the employee stocking the shelves. Remember, employees are full of knowledge.

Note: Retailers will notice you writing things down in a notebook. It’s kind of hard not to. If you’re asked to stop, stop and come back at a later time, make mental notes, or repeat this process at another store.

This research shapes where you position your company’s products. Don’t worry about fine-tuning your recipe, packaging, labeling, shelf-space, or manufacturing until you’ve done this step.

It’s that crucial.