IT SEEMS pretty well established that we're in a recession now, and that means we'll be seeing a few recession-induced changes in food markets next year, according to the experts.
For instance, food industry watchdog Phil Lempert thinks there will be a much smaller variety of products on store shelves as manufacturers' research and development funds begin to dry up. New product introductions are, after all, expensive.
But Lempert, who edits a monthly newsletter describing trends, thinks that's for the good. "My arena is the supermarket," he says, "and do we really need 12,000 new products introduced every year?"
Obviously, he thinks the answer is no.
Lempert, who has been involved with food marketing all his life, will tape a television show called "Consumer Insights" for possible national syndication at Buffalo's Channel 7 right after the holidays.
Lempert says he visits 10 to 15 markets across the country every week and talks to some 5,000 consumers in the course of the year to find out why they're buying what they're buying.
Kathy Kahle, consumer affairs director for Bell's, thinks that as consumers become more concerned about finances, manufacturers will begin to market more "cents off" and "bonus pack merchandise."
There will be more couponing, too, she says.
"When products are of equal quality, price is very important to consumers, so there will be a lot of pressure to stay competitive," she says.
At the same time, Ms. Kahle says, supermarkets will be emphasizing the service areas of the store -- takeout, produce, deli, bakery, meat and fish. "There is a perception of quality in those departments," she says.
No matter how the economy fares, Mike Coppola, vice president for marketing at Tops Markets, predicts that convenience will continue to be an overriding concern in stores for the next few years.
"No question, that's what consumers are looking for," says Coppola.
"Up to now, European supermarkets have been far ahead of the United States in making high-quality fresh, chilled (as opposed to frozen) foods available to their customers, so we'll be selling more of this kind of food in our new stores," he says.
"And we'll also be selling fresh-cut deli products in vacuum packages; technological advances have now made that possible at individual store levels. Customers will be able to buy fresh deli items all around the clock."
"We see a continued emphasis on produce," says Ann McCarthy, consumer affairs representative of Wegmans' Buffalo stores.
"Actually, we see a greater interest in fresh foods in general."
Concern with freshness is so intense, she notes, that it is leading to multiple supermarket visits. Customers are willing to come to the store more than once a week in order to buy top quality.
When it comes to checkouts, Ms. McCarthy says, better technology will continue to speed things up.
"We are already using an electronic checkout that deducts the amount from the consumer's checking account without having to sign pieces of paper."
Most marketing experts agree the new federal labeling law will have more customers than ever reading labels in 1991. Also, they probably will understand what they are reading.
Says Bob Kirch, sales manager for Flickinger's Buffalo Super Duper stores: "We are seeing sharper and sharper consumers these days. They are better-educated and much more interested in what they are purchasing."
What kinds of food will post big sales in 1991?
Anything perceived as healthy, our experts say. Interest in low-fat, low-salt foods, if anything, is increasing.
And Lempert is predicting "major diet wars" with more manufacturers getting into the low-calorie game.
"Whatever you put into a container and promise weight loss will sell," he says. But oddly enough, Lempert is predicting a rise in sweet and candy sales also.
He attributes this to a slumping economy.
"History shows that in hard times, fancy foods sell well," Lempert says. "They are the one luxury people can afford.
"Brie rose to prominence in the '70s, which was also a recessionary period.
"You just need something to make you feel good," says Lempert. "You can't just jump out of the window, after all."
Other foods that will do well, according to our experts, include "fluids of all kinds -- bottled water to juices," exotic produce and seafood, although supplies are expected to tighten.
We'll be looking for new species of fish, not unlike orange roughy, now very popular. It was difficult to find a few years ago.
Poultry will continue to sell well, and beef sales are expected to improve. The feeling is that the decline in beef sales has bottomed out.
Products with an ecological angle should do well. "The whole environment issue will stay with us," Lempert predicts.
And he believes that some food manufacturers had better get the message.
"Consumers don't want to see any more things like Campbell Souper Combo," Lempert says.
"For goodness' sake, there are about five different kinds of plastic and packaging involved in this one single-serving product."