The calendar reflects the month of May with the dogwoods and azaleas blooms slowly fading and the trees in full green regalia. Spring is here (except for the recent frost!). But, as I peruse the articles and writings over the past couple of months, I am more reminded of the holiday poem, “T’was the Night Before Christmas.” Instead of Dec. 24 though, I am thinking about the night before March 17 when all through our houses, “not a creature was stirring” or planning or thinking about groceries, food, shelter in place, masks, hand sanitizer or toilet paper. But soon we heard the clatter, sprung from our beds “to see what was the matter” and “flew” to the grocery stores, restaurants, box stores and anywhere else to fill our baskets with food, water, Clorox and toilet paper rolls as our pleasant dreams were replaced with visions of panic, uncertainty and a “new normal.” As we rethink how we shop for food, what we buy and how we raise and process food, I wonder, will the new normal become normal in our quest for food? Regardless of where we are in the “farm to fork” process, we have changed.
We know the quotes: “Change is inevitable,” “The only thing constant in life is change” and “expect the unexpected.” But what we’ve experienced in our daily lives during the past two months has been beyond the norm. Typically, we don’t embrace change without some resistance, but this time, we didn’t have a choice. Closing of work sites, restaurants and schools, as well as the imposition of travel bans suddenly made our “sheltering in place” homes the epicenter of “all things food” and tilted the food distribution system on its head. For some, the initial sight of empty shelves in a grocery store caused panic resulting in the hoarding of food and cleaning products, while others found themselves relying on a food bank for the first time. According to a recent survey1 from The Hartman Group and FMI, nine out of 10 consumers now experience some level of anxiety and concern related to COVID-19.2 This survey, along with a recent one by Category Partners reflects the impact of the COVID-19.3 So, how do our personal shopping behaviors reflect the national findings? Let’s look at current trends.
The Grocery Shopping Experience
For some of us, grocery shopping was done on an “as needed basis” without a well-defined plan. But that is not the case any longer. According to the Hartman Group/FMI research, 89% of consumers have changed how they shop with 44% buying more at each trip. Even though I remain an “in-store shopper” (with printed list, gloves, mask, hand sanitizer and glasses in hand), the surge of online shopping also is reflected in the survey as 49% report online shopping with one-fifth of consumers identified as “first time users.” With the rapid change in shopping habits and grocery stores being the main source of food, the survey findings validate what my peers have experienced, including longer wait times between ordering online and picking-up at the store. But for most, the positive elements of our systems have outweighed perceived barriers. With concerns of personal safety taken out of the equation plus the in-home convenience of perusing a list instead of aimlessly wandering a store to find a product, new users like my peers, likely will stay committed to online food shopping beyond COVID-19.
The Changing Grocery Cart
Less trips and larger purchases call for a combination of what I’ve referenced as “short term” and “long term” purchases. Recent consumer insights validate this. The just released Category Partner survey found that just over 50% of consumers report purchasing more frozen foods and center-store items due to COVID-19, while roughly 40% say they are buying more fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, fresh meat and dairy for the same reason. Likewise, almost half of consumers (46%) stated they are buying more packaged goods. With the rise of packaged food purchasing, we have seen the increase use of store brands as well. A recent CNN Business report found that Americans are experimenting with alternatives to their favorite consumer product labels as they try to save money and find their “go-to products” are not always available.4 So, store brand products, particularly for packaged foods, are the answer and are well positioned to address the need. Regardless of your store of choice, we’ve all seen a growth in private brands and improvement in quality. What I used to think was “second best,” I, too, have come to realize are high quality. In fact, since the start of the pandemic in the U.S., private-brand sales grew 29%, outpacing regular-branded product sales, which grew by 24%, according to the most recent data from Nielsen.
Even though four out of 10 consumers state they are buying more fresh fruits, vegetables, dairy and meat, are we really eating better from a health perspective? From all the Instagram pictures of baking (and the empty flour shelves), we assume this is not the case. However, the The Hartman Group/FMI survey shows slightly over a third (36%) report healthier eating habits now than before the COVID-19 pandemic. With over 40% of consumers reporting cooking more meals, it is hopeful that fruits and vegetables are coming back into the picture more frequently but I’ll let your own plate be the guide.
The Yearn of Yesteryear
The current pandemic has not only brought changes to the traditional retail grocery business but also to local “farm to food” purveyors and locally owned restaurants, many of which are adding groceries to their take-out menus. This brings back childhood memories of the local corner store, Smithy’s (no relation), that my family frequented. Since we raised all our vegetables, chicken, eggs and milk, a grocery store, like Smithy’s was our source for “center of the aisle” products, fruit and fresh meat — and of course, our friends. With the current meat shortages and restaurant owners looking for needed revenue, the yearn of yesteryear has returned. Nation’s Restaurant News5 recently highlighted various chains and independents that began selling milk, rolls, vegetables and other items that resonated with customers. In fact, shuttered restaurants who began selling groceries curbside during the shutdown see no reason to stop once restaurants reopen as it gives the customer more options from grab and go to seasonal products and meal kits. As one small chain owner noted in the article, “What we’re realizing is we probably should have had this all along.” I’ve seen this first hand as one locally owned bakery and café has evolved beyond the menu into prepared family meals, at home preparation meal kits and fresh seafood and meat. Other experts have predicted that food retail will maintain a significant amount of this “new business” for some time, slowly decreasing over the next year.
Likewise, local on-farm entities, like Hill View Farm Meats in Owensboro, Kentucky, have seen an increase in sales from current customers and newly established ones due to the desire for quality meat products and personal curbside service. As owner Jim Gilles III states, “It’s been great for business and we are excited to accommodate new customers, but just like the larger processing plants, there is a still a ‘supply and demand’ issue as smaller processing plants are now booked two months in advance rather than the usual two week cycle.” Managing customer expectations along with processing plant schedules have become Gilles’s top priority in meeting customer demand.
The Bottom Line — Food is Available, Cost Rising
Over the years, there have been critics complaining that our U.S. food is too cheap, creating the opportunity for individuals to eat less healthful food. Whether we ascribe to this theory or not, today’s reality is that grocery prices have increased. According to CNBC, the Labor Department reported earlier this week that prices U.S. consumers paid for groceries jumped 2.6% in April, the largest one-month pop since February 1974.6 The price of meats, poultry, fish and eggs rose the most at 4.3%, while cereals and bakery products increased 2.9%, and fruits and vegetables climbed 1.5%. For some, the price increase may not be felt, but for others, that will not be the case. For example, the limited and yet, higher priced meat products like ground beef, may reflect the challenges of the socioeconomic divide. Food is available but not always accessible to everyone.
We are Changed
As we move through the coming months, we will not go back to our “normal.” Everything that touches our lives — work, education, travel, entertainment and food — will morph, evolve and change. But when it comes to our food behaviors, the questions for us include:
- Will we adopt these new found behaviors as our routine when more options become available?
- Will we decide that online shopping is best?
- Will cooking at home and having family meals continue to be a priority?
- Will we view local purveyors and restaurants as part of food purchasing options?
- Will we continue recognizing that we need to do more to provide food for all of those around us?
All these questions are being analyzed, tracked and surveyed by many but the outcome lies within our own path forward. What is your “new normal”?
1. FMI and The Hartman Group, “U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends: The Impact of COVID-19.”
2. This annual survey was originally conducted in February 2020 but with the COVID-19 outbreak, researchers have continued weekly trend tracking from mid-March to the end of April.
3. CP Category Partners, “COVID-19 Purchasing Behaviors.”
4. CNN Business, “Costco’s Kirkland and other store brands are having a moment,” Nathaniel Meyersohn and Alicia Wallace, May 12, 2020.
5. Nation’s Restaurant News, “Groceries, virtual cooking classes and more restaurant menu innovations that could be here to stay post-pandemic,” Bret Thorn, May 13, 2020.
6. CNBC, “US grocery costs jump the most in 46 years, led by rising prices for meat and eggs,” Thomas Franck, May 12, 2020.