Nov 9, 2020
The pandemic changed the way consumers shop

After the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11, 2020, there has been a significant impact on grocery shopping behavior across the country, according to shopper researcher Catalina.

Consumers are making fewer trips to the grocery store, but they are spending 6% more per trip. Catalina captures Universal Product Codes that are scanned daily to track buying behavior. They saw that consumers made more trips in March at the beginning of the pandemic and reduced trips in April. From May through September, grocery store trips are down 10%.

Frozen food sales increased 17.4% year-over-year during the last week of August – marking the 25th consecutive week of double-digit gains in dollar sales for the category. Frozen meals had the highest sales share, followed by frozen meat, poultry and seafood.

Consumers are trying to find a balance between comfort and health, according to Grocery Dive. Frozen pizza was up 18.6% the last week of August while meat substitutes were the fifth-highest growing category over the last six months.

Anecdotally, I’m hearing similar observations from farmers’ markets and retail farm markets. Managers are reporting that customer counts are down, but gross sales are higher than the previous year.

According to the marketing firm, Acosta, more than half of consumers are eating at home more often. While 25% on consumers are getting tired of cooking, 35% have found a new passion for cooking.

So, what does all this data mean? Retail at its best always comes down to solving our customers’ problems and this data gives us some insight into how consumers have been purchasing in this pandemic year and what purchasing habits may stick around.

Take away: Consumers are making fewer trips but purchasing more. They are eating more meals at home so cooking and the family meal have returned. They are looking for a balance between healthy and comfort food. They still have a need for convenience. Lastly, we all have had a front-row-seat view into our food system and there is greater interest in local, short supply chains.

Here are some ways we can address these new trends in our markets.

Emphasize products that are local. Right now, consumers are looking for food security and safety and they feel that local, short supply chains give them that security. A recent Produce Marketing Association survey of consumer sentiment showed that 56% of consumers are concerned about the safety/cleanliness of fresh produce.

Create some labor-saving meal preparation solutions like marinades for meat, and side dishes that just need to be heated and served. Don’t just offer them green beans, offer them meal suggestions. “Our green beans go great with ham and new potatoes.”

Consider offering self-stable items in bulk. Again, it’s the feeling of security to have these things on hand in the pantry.

Online ordering is here to stay. Those markets that offer online ordering are probably seeing customers that they haven’t seen before. Even if it is only a small percentage of your gross, the trend is that it will continue to grow, and the shopping experience needs to be as rewarding as the in-store experience.

Brian Moyer, Penn State Extension

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