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What’s Next for the Way America Eats

The nation isn’t back to normal yet, but new insights revealed in 2nd installment of Progressive Grocer’s retail foodservice research offer indications of coming trends
What’s Next for the Way America Eats
Slightly more than 40% of meals are made at home with at least one component from scratch, an uptick from the prior year.

If there’s been one lesson to take away from the pandemic, it’s that grocers need to expect the unexpected. Shoppers’ behavior regarding the purchase, preparation and consumption of food changed at every turn during the past 18 months, and today behaviors remain heavily influenced by pandemic forces. Now all indications are that 2022 will also be filled with ample uncertainty as well as shifting opportunities.

These expectations are rooted in fresh insights from exclusive research conducted this past July by Progressive Grocer as a follow-up to last year’s report, “What’s Next for the Way America Eats.” As with the first study, part two of the research included survey respondents with full or shared responsibility for meals and for shopping for their household. Key findings from the second installment of the research were shared during PG’s Retail Foodservice Innovation Summit, held Oct. 27.

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The survey findings document shifts in behavior as well as evolving expectations and preferences of shoppers in relation to what, how and where meals are consumed. For example, when the first installment of the research was conducted in late summer 2020, it was a time when it seemed like the pandemic might be close to an end. PG wanted to understand, as did everyone in the food retailing industry, which behaviors that consumers had adopted during the first seven or eight months of the pandemic were going to stick around into 2021. Subsequently, however, the pandemic didn’t end and shopper behaviors remained disrupted, especially in relation to cooking at home, purchasing from restaurants and buying prepared foods from grocers.

A Big Shift Ahead for Travel and Entertaining

A pandemic can keep people down for only so long. The nation isn’t out of the woods yet when it comes to COVID-19, but that hasn’t stopped people from gathering at major sporting events, eating out at restaurants and resuming air travel. These indicators suggest a return to a more normal holiday season, with a few wrinkles, as confirmed by findings in “What’s Next for the Way America Eats, Part II.”

“We’re seeing a lot more consumers planning on having small group gatherings, which is 54% this year versus 37% last year,” said Laura Nicklin, lead researcher on the study and VP of research, insights and innovation with EnsembleIQ, parent company of Progressive Grocer. “We’re seeing more people planning to celebrate in a small group than ever before in previous years. People are so excited to be able to start celebrating with others that more are planning to do so than even in the past.”

How Americans Plan to Travel and Celebrate the Holidays

Gatherings this year will be slightly larger...

  2020 2021
Alone/with those in household 38% 57%
Small group gathering 54% 37%
Large group gathering 8% 6%
Travel will be more common:    
Plan to stay home 60% 73%
Travel locally 27% 18%
Travel out of town 13% 10%

Source: Progressive Grocer research

That’s why in July 2021, PG, in conjunction with parent company EnsembleIQ’s research division, fielded a new survey, the findings of which are contained in “What’s Next for the Way America Eats, Part II.” While some of the questions were repeated to compare with the baseline established in the prior year — an exercise that revealed notable shifts — new areas were explored to offer retailers a glimpse into how 2022 shopper behaviors will be different.

“Despite a dramatic increase in COVID-19 cases due to the Delta variant that was happening during the survey period, we saw a shift away from the pandemic mindset, as evidenced by some of the metrics,” says Laura Nicklin, lead researcher on the project and VP of research, insights and innovation with EnsembleIQ. “Fewer people are sheltering in place, and more are living normally than they were during the first year of the pandemic, but they are living more carefully.”

This reality was reflected in key highlights of the research, which included the following:

  • Home cooking has gained ground. Slightly more than 40% of meals were made at home with at least one component from scratch, an uptick from the prior year. Prepared foods accounted for another 20% of meals.
  • Consumers continued to cook at home more, because they enjoyed most of the meals they made (55%), they saved money (43%), and they tried new recipes and/or flavors (42%).
  • Home cooking is better than restaurant food, according to 45% of respondents, while perceptions of restaurant quality and service have slipped as prices have increased.
  • Convenience, taste, quality and cost-effectiveness were top reasons that consumers chose foodservice at retail. Nearly 60% said that it’s more affordable than restaurant food.
  • Restaurants still trumped retail, with 42% of those surveyed of the opinion that restaurants are “far better” than prepared foods from a retail store. However, 27% did say that retailers’ food is as good as or better than restaurants’.
  • Those who have shied away from foodservice at retail cited concerns about safe handling and preparation methods, as well as fatigue regarding the choices offered.
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These preference changes are happening against a backdrop of shifting concerns about the pandemic and fluctuating traffic patterns at stores. Publicly held retailers commented over the summer on a resumption of traffic to stores and slightly smaller transaction sizes, while the opposite was true during 2020.

“Shoppers are a little less likely to be ordering online and picking up or getting their groceries delivered. They’re a little bit more likely to be shopping in store and shifting away from that pandemic mindset,” Nicklin says, noting the root cause of safety concerns. “Compared to 2020, consumers are less concerned with safety measures in the prepared foods area. We asked, ‘Should employees and shoppers be wearing a mask, gloves and using hand sanitizer in that prepared foods area?’ Last year, we had higher percentages of consumers thinking that employees and shoppers should be doing so.”

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The Post-Pandemic Mindset

The pandemic isn’t gone entirely, but as vaccination rates increase along with booster shots, many aspects of life are returning to normal. For many Americans, that could mean dining out, even if data shows solid satisfaction rates with home cooking and foodservice-at-retail offerings.

“We are closer to a post-pandemic mindset than we have been in the last 18 months. Those who follow college football, the NFL or baseball see evidence of this post-pandemic mindset on their televisions every week,” Nicklin says, referencing stadiums filled with fans seated shoulder to shoulder.

While crowds may be back at stadiums, however, restaurant traffic remains challenged. In fact, at the time when the study was conducted in July, those surveyed said that they were eating in restaurants less often than compared with earlier in the year. Some of that has to do with the twin forces of consumers realizing that they’re pretty good cooks while also discovering grocers’ foodservice offerings.

“Generally speaking, all of the behaviors that were picked up during the pandemic were largely maintained,” Nicklin says. “The pandemic has really taken a toll on restaurants. Not only did they have to close for a period of time, but then when they reopened and there was a slow movement back, there was also an issue with staffing and service levels.”

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Looking Ahead to 2022

The common theme between the fall of 2021 and the fall of 2020 is the perception that an end to the pandemic is around the corner. Last year, it was the looming availability of vaccines that offered hope. Then the Delta variant of COVID-19 surged and that optimism faded. Now Delta has faded and the adult vaccination rate is at approximately 70%, offering hope that next year will be more normal.

But what is normal anymore? New habits tend to be formed quickly, and data from “What’s Next for the Way America Eats, Part II,” shows that behaviors that should have faded this year, like cooking at home, have actually increased or strengthened. Then there’s the issue of the initial boost that prepared foods got from restaurant closures, followed by lapses in service, quality and prices. Those factors have persisted, creating future opportunities for grocers.

“If grocers felt the impact of decreased restaurant use in their prepared foods business in 2021, that’s not likely to go away in the near future,” Nicklin affirms. “The data showed 2.1 out of 10 meals were prepared foods, and the drivers of preference are a combination of grocers’ reliable strengths. Sixty-three percent said [foodservice-as-retail] is a convenient option. We also saw things like taste of food, quality of food, and the cost-effectiveness or affordability of prepared foods as commonly mentioned reasons why consumers like prepared foods.”

Restaurant food may still hold the edge over foodservice-at-retail when it comes to quality perceptions, but grocers have gained ground. The big advantage that grocers will have in 2022 relates to the affordability issue. Already an area where grocers fare well, rampant food price inflation will have consumers seeking value more than ever.

“We asked consumers who said they are buying prepared foods more why they are doing so, and the top reason was affordability, with 59% saying it’s more affordable than restaurant food,” Nicklin notes. “Most consumers still generally prefer the quality of restaurant food to prepared foods, but we do see that 27% feel prepared foods are at least as good as or better than restaurant food. That’s a healthy percentage, and that makes me optimistic about prepared foods.” 

  • Why COVID-19 Is Controversial: Dissenting Americans Pose a Dilemma for Grocers

    Grocers are going to be disappointed in 2022 if they’re counting on a reprieve from the divisiveness that has arisen regarding COVID-19. There’s plenty that Americans disagree about when it comes to vaccine mandates, rules for businesses, and the balance between public health and personal freedom. Fascinating insights into each of these areas were revealed in Progressive Grocer’s study, “What’s Next for the Way America Eats, Part II,” reflecting the marketplace realities in which grocers are running stores and foodservice operations.

    For example, shoppers displayed a wide range of views when asked their opinions about food retailers and restaurants requiring proof of vaccination to enter their buildings. Half said that they agree private businesses have a right to turn people away for safety reasons, but 27% said that unvaccinated people should be allowed inside businesses as long as they’re wearing a facial covering. Things start to get interesting when views of personal freedom and health enter the picture. One-fifth of those surveyed said that businesses shouldn’t be allowed to turn customers away based on personal health care decisions. Another fifth said that if establishments require proof, they will take their business elsewhere.

    “Of the consumers that we surveyed, 74% told us they’ve been vaccinated or have plans to get vaccinated, but 21% said they have no plans to get vaccinated, and a small percentage did not want to share,” says Laura Nicklin, lead researcher on the study and VP of research, insights and innovation with EnsembleIQ, parent company of Progressive Grocer.

    On the issue of masks, more divisiveness was evident. Nicklin notes that a majority of Americans believe that facial coverings are helpful, but 18% said that they don’t believe facial coverings help at all.

    The other notable finding relates to pandemic fatigue and a dour view of when the nation will get back to normal.

    “Most U.S. consumers are not optimistic about the end to COVID-19 in the near future, and 28% believe that it’s never going to go away.” Nicklin observes. “Interestingly, 7% of the consumers we surveyed said that they don’t believe we’re in a pandemic at all.”

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