We may be in the midst of global pandemic, but that doesn’t mean that all celebrations have ground to a halt. As Americans navigate how to mark such summer events as graduations, the Fourth of July and Labor Day in a world where social distancing is still in effect even as lockdown restrictions begin to ease, retailers are beginning to look toward fall, which brings its own share of entertaining occasions, among them tailgating parties, Halloween and, of course, Thanksgiving. How are these festivities likely to be affected by coronavirus fears?
- Virtual and smaller in-person gatherings will likely predominate.
- Traditional seasonal recipes will come to the fore, along with smaller and single-serve items.
- Retailers can leverage social media, business partnerships and delivery services to promote their products.
“With so much uncertainty right now, it is difficult to say exactly what will happen a few months from now,” admits Jeremiah McElwee, chief merchandising officer at Los Angeles-based organic e-grocer Thrive Market. “But if current climate is any indication, I would expect Zoom calls and Facetime to be the norm for autumn gatherings as we social distance to avoid spreading COVID-19.”
As a recent example of such an event, McElwee offers, “We had an amazing turnout for our Zoom-based wine-tasting event, and everyone was so delighted and happy.”
As for how his company is faring, he notes: “We have seen tremendous growth this year so far, and we do not expect that to slow down any time soon. Even if restaurants and social gathering spots start opening up, many new people have discovered the joy of shopping online for [their] organic groceries, and just how much safer and time-saving it is.”
For fall specifically, when it comes to promoting foods suitable for entertaining, like its popular healthy snack assortment, Thrive intends to “feature them front and center on our homepage, but also send out special features and offers via email to help our members find exciting new and old favorites every day,” according to McElwee.
Even when people get together in person, they won’t be assembling in large numbers for the foreseeable future.
“Humans crave social interactions, which is why virtual parties became mainstream events during the COVID-19 pandemic and are here to stay through the fall and holiday entertaining season. We will see fewer people traveling for holidays, opting to stay home and celebrate in small groups. Intimate events will replace large public events for Halloween, and Thanksgiving will become more personal and certainly more meaningful.”
The concept of gratitude resonates with Ashley Lind, director of consumer insight at Chicago-based Conagra Brands, which offers such autumn-appropriate food staples as Swiss Miss Pumpkin Spice Cocoa, Duncan Hines seasonal baking mixes and the Slim Jim Halloween pack.
“As we find ourselves in these strange, often isolated and sometimes monotonous times, I think many people have also found a new appreciation for togetherness, connection and a desire to make moments like these a little extra special for loved ones,” asserts Lind. “So, this year, I can see these gatherings carrying some extra significance for families as they come together and perhaps use food — which has become an activity in its own right throughout the pandemic, with the rise of families cooking and baking together — to celebrate.”
To that end, she continues: “Most of these autumn gatherings have long-standing traditions associated with them — both collective ones that span our culture and those that are highly personal to us and our families. And, like most good traditions, these ones — tailgating, Halloween, Thanksgiving — come with their own iconic food moments. I think we’ll see consumers embrace these food traditions, and we may see an increase in them re-creating nostalgic family recipes. Additionally, throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen a growing number of younger consumers engaging more with cooking and starting to develop new skills. If extended families can’t be together on Thanksgiving, we may see some of these younger individuals and families cooking their own Thanksgiving dinners for the first time. But they may not have the same skills as their parents or grandparents, and may be on the lookout for helpers and hacks.”
Time for Turkey
That’s where turkey purveyors like iconic Garner, North Carolina-based Butterball come in.
“Fortunately, the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line is equipped and experienced with real experts on the phone, text, online chat or via the Butterball skill on Alexa to assist hosts of all types with their Thanksgiving meal questions.
Although noting that “[i]t’s too early to tell what sales are going to look like this year,” Welch says: “At this point, we are planning to have as many Butterball whole turkeys and turkey products available to meet the needs for all types of celebrations. ... We saw a large spike in whole turkey sales in March as meat became scarce in grocery stores, a trend that continued through April. That early demand could put some pressure on supply this fall, especially if consumers continue to purchase turkey products, normally prepared during the holidays, between now and November. This is complicated by the large supply swings in beef and pork we see right now.”
The best course of action for retailers, she advises, is “to have a wide variety of products to offer to meet virtually any need. We know this year’s holidays will likely look different from previous years’ celebrations, and it’s important to have options and equip consumers with everything they need to celebrate creatively. Additionally, retailers need to prepare their e-commerce storefronts to capture their fair share of online Thanksgiving orders. Consumers are using online grocery more than ever, and we expect that will persist in recovery and beyond.”
Something From the Oven
Trends in baked goods are also shifting as consumers and retailers adjust to new ways of celebrating in the wake of the pandemic
“A higher sense of concern for food safety is present due to COVID-19,” observes Sarah Hickey, senior director market research and insights for North America at Jackson, Michigan-based Dawn Foods, which provides retail customers with a wealth of resources, from recipes and baking tips to videos and baking trends data.
“For consumers, the product is as important as its packaging. Desserts may shift toward smaller and single-serve treats.
In regard to autumn, Hickey notes: “Fall is typically a very busy season for bakers. As the COVID-19 pandemic evolves, we believe consumers will continue to crave popular fall flavors, like pumpkin spice and sweet potato, with product size and packaging nuances. For example, Thanksgiving will most likely see a shift from multiple households under one roof to those households celebrating in each of their own homes. An order of two dozen doughnuts made with Dawn’s popular pumpkin or apple crisp cake doughnut mixes for one celebration can turn into double or triple the order for multiple households. Due to this, Dawn still anticipates an uptick in sales.”
She suggests that in-store bakeries “should prioritize their product assortment. Focusing on what can be made well, at a low cost with minimal errors, is imperative. Complex recipes and decorating can take a backseat to staples like chocolate cake, blueberry muffins and glazed doughnuts reminding consumers of traditional comforts.”
Hickey also points out that “bake-at-home kits and frozen offerings make great creative additions to any traditional menu. These kits allow consumers to bring home dessert staples that bring them comfort. A customer coming in and buying one item or a box of baked goods may not be as common for a while. The ability to buy doughnuts, muffins and cinnamon rolls by the dozen to take home and bake themselves may quickly become the new normal.”
As for marketing these products, she recommends that retailers use social media to post such content as “how-to” videos, partner with local restaurants to provide desserts for their takeout orders, and consider offering a delivery service within a certain radius of their stores.
The important thing to remember is that there will always be things worth celebrating, even during a global crisis. Discussing how the prepared food category is adapting through such strategies as providing more pre-packaged options that can be ordered ahead of time and picked up at the store, Eric Richard, industry relations coordinator at the Madison, Wisconsin-based International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association, notes, “We’ll get some innovation out of this,” adding, “It doesn’t mean we have to stop celebrating, just that we do it in a different way.”