Consumers Crave Comfort Foods

C-stores should be upfront about food safety and cleanliness as customers seek their go-to coffee, snacks.

April 09, 2020

By Pat Pape

CHICAGO—Food is playing an important role in getting Americans through the current COVID-19 crisis and will be key to normality when the quarantine ends, according to a recent research report “Pent-Up Demand” from Datassential.

Since early March, the Chicago-based market research company has been surveying consumers twice weekly to measure their opinions and concerns about the crisis. With most states under “shelter-in-place” mandates, the majority of consumers are staying home, with only 17% still leaving for work or school, according to Mark Brandau, group manager in charge of producing the reports for Datassential.

“On March 11, everything changed,” Brandau told NACS Daily. “People became more aware of the situation. Tom Hanks got COVID-19. The NBA canceled its season. Our first survey found concern about COVID-19 among parents, millennials and people in urban locations. Now, concern is high across the board, but there is a spike among Baby Boomers.”

Presently, consumers say they avoid eating out (62%), and many are concerned about buying prepared foods for home consumption. “They preceive more risk in prepared food sections [at retail stores],” Brandau said. “If you reach in the cold case or roller grill, you’re less sure about who has touched it or been around it.

“People are trying to hang on to as much of their old life as possible, and a lot of that centers around food. People aren’t skipping meals. They’re using food as something to do in the home with the family, and they’re cooking from scratch a lot more,” he added. “There is a lot of comfort eating, stress eating. But there also is a demand for favorites. They want their coffee or signature breakfast sandwich.”

The most important thing for any foodservice operator right now is to be transparent about in-store food safety and cleanliness, Brandau advised.

“We’ve asked consumers what things reassure them right now, and it’s no surprize—cleanliness, food safety and operators who take care of the staff that is supposed to be taking of them,” he said. “That means employees don’t have to come to work if they aren’t feeling well, and they’re given protective equipment—gloves, mask, hairnets. Contactless delivery is a brand new concept that no one thought about before, but people like that idea.”

For the sake of good health—and customer confidence—stores need to be cleaner now than ever before.

“Do that little extra in front of the customers. Make sure they see you wiping down surfaces. If the cashier is wearing gloves, that’s good,” he said. “As for the packaging on prepared foods, you can put tamper-proof seals over the clam shell, even if it’s just a sticker. If you can, include sanitized wipes in the take-out [prepared food] bags.”

Eventually, the quarantine will end, but many concerns and practices consumers have acquired over the past weeks may stay with them. According to Datassential, consumers say they’ll probably continue washing their hands more than they did before the pandemic (77%), disinfect carts and baskets at stores (68%), carry hand santitizer with them when they go out (66%) and maintain social distancing in public (64%). When asked what they look forward to doing most when they’re free to socialize again, the number one choice (41%) was “dine at my favorite sit-down restaurant.”

Pat Pape worked in the convenience store industry for more than 20 years before becoming a full-time writer. She writes for NACS Daily and NACS Magazine.

Coronavirus Resources

NACS has compiled resources to help the convenience retail community navigate the COVID-19 crisis. For news updates and guidance, visit our coronavirus resources page.