Will COVID-19’s Influence Outlive the Pandemic?
If we needed another reminder of how pervasively COVID-19 has influenced everything in society today, the fact that people now casually refer to “life B.C.,” meaning the time before COVID-19, demonstrates that the pandemic has emerged as a defining moment in our history.
Unfortunately, we have not yet attained a level of predictable control that allows us to comfortably talk about life after COVID-19; even still, we all remain curious about the contours of the new normal. In food industry circles, this curiosity translates into intense speculation about the COVID-19-influenced food-shopping trends that will stick with us for the long haul, and those that will go by the wayside as quickly as they materialized.
Following are four COVID-19 food-shopping trends, followed by my thoughts on whether they’ll stay or go.
1. Where Consumers Get Their Food
The long-standing rivalry between restaurants and grocery stores as they vie for the consumer food dollar has been neck and neck in recent years. Foodservice has been enjoying a slow 40-year ascent, and a few years ago, it laid claim to the larger piece of the pie.
Then home sheltering hit, and everything changed. Grocery stores — representing dollars spent on food eaten at home — saw 40 years of decline erased, and restaurants — representing dollars spent on food away from home — watched all of their hard-earned increases disappear within a matter of days.
My prediction: After some initial celebratory escapes to restaurants, the trend of home cooking will persist; in fact, almost half of shoppers today say that they plan to continue cooking more at home when home-sheltering recommendations are lifted.
2. How Consumers Get Their Food
In 2019, regular online shoppers hit the 21% mark, but pre-pandemic 2020 saw that number climb to 34%. As a portion of all grocery spending in 2019, online sales accounted for 10.5%; in February 2020, online represented 14.5% of grocery sales. In March/April, online sales skyrocketed to 27.9%. Six years’ worth of growth in online took place in six weeks, with online sales doubling.
My prediction: Online shopping will continue to ride the crest it’s enjoying. It will settle back to some degree, but too many consumers have gotten the hang of it now to go back. It will enjoy a 50%-60% bump this year.
3. The Who and Where of Food Procurement
When asked, 90% of surveyed consumers said that COVID-19 had caused them to shift some aspect of their grocery shopping. More than one-third of shoppers made a pandemic-driven change in who grocery shops for their household, and 10% specified their area of change as being the store they shop most frequently.
Prior to COVID-19, consumers were channel-surfing freely, hitting 4.1 different channels fairly often and shopping five different banners in a given month. During the pandemic, 40% reported shopping fewer stores and 56% said that they had increased reliance on the grocery channel since the outbreak.
My prediction: As safety levels are elevated and shoppers feel more secure, multichannel/multibanner shopping will pick back up where it left off, and the co-shopping trend will resume with a vengeance — but with a significant online twist.
4. Consumer Value-Driven Shopping
Some have speculated that during the pandemic days of panic buying, customers abandoned their values and just went for what was available. Perhaps that’s true to an extent, but it’s not entirely accurate. Before COVID-19, 82% of shoppers reported that they were actively looking for at least one front-of-pack claim, and during COVID-19, 85% say that they still seek the label information they looked for prior to the pandemic.
My prediction: Consumer attention to all manner of social concerns and ethical considerations will escalate. Perhaps most importantly, we will see a renewed interest in health and well-being matters, particularly as they apply to disease resistance. Increased attention will also be given to environmental issues, food waste reduction, fair labor practices and animal welfare concerns as shoppers seek constructive outlets for the pent-up anxiety and fretful energy they’ve experienced living during COVID-19. These will become factors in their store selections and product purchase decisions.