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Despite record sales, General Mills eyes post-pandemic future amid changing consumer habits

America has slowly and steadily drifted away from packaged food and that is what U of M Professor George John says General Mills has to find its way around.

GOLDEN VALLEY, Minn. — How the last year was weathered by big business depends on the big business you ask.

Here at home, places like Target did great. Best Buy did pretty darn well, too. And General Mills had its best sales year ever.

That last one isn't surprising. Restaurants closed and to stay safe, we stayed home, we ate at home, and General Mills makes things that we eat at home.

But what comes next for the food maker likely isn't what happened last year.

Forty years ago, General Mills was a business titan, so much so that it was and still is what is being taught by those in business circles, like U of M Professor George John.

"I always tell my students that what we think of as Google and Facebook and Amazon today – the titans of the world – was General Mills an Kellogg's and Post," professor John says. "Breakfast cereal was the most profitable to be in back until the late 80's."

But like everything, times have changed.

"That industry has been shrinking. Year after year the amount of cereal we eat has gone down, and that's basically the core of the company, so they are facing some headwinds, and these headwinds have been there for a while," John says. 

Those headwinds got a break last year. General Mills had its biggest year ever with $18.1 billion in sales due to a pandemic that forced us to buy food to eat at home.

But now that those days are past, the headwinds are back.

"So they are back to their trend line, which is a slow, steady trend line downward," John says. 

General Mills is laying off people in a massive way. It was first reported by the Star Tribune weeks ago, but once those have happened, what is the future?

Professor John says their problem isn't Amazon and E-commerce, like it is for some companies. 

"General Mills' problem is completely different. At GM they don't care if it's sold online or offline – that's not the problem," he says. "Their problem is making you want to eat what they have." 

America has slowly and steadily drifted away from packaged food, and that is what John says General Mills has to find its way around.

Which is totally different from other big businesses in Minnesota like Target and Best Buy

"The problem pre-pandemic for them was Big Bad Amazon, that is going to be the problem going forward," John says. 

It's a whole new world to tackle for companies big and small.

"We are definitely changing faster than big business is able to do." 

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