Consumers Re-Shape Retail Food Trends

New research cites consumer behavior shifts and changing habits for what’s next in the food industry. 

June 15, 2020

By Chris Blasinsky

ARLINGTON, VA—FMI—The Food Industry Association recently released its U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends report, which tracks consumer grocery shopping habits before the pandemic and attitude shifts that took place during COVID-19 and offers a glimpse of what might come next for the food industry.

For years, U.S. consumers have been spending more share of their food dollars at restaurants rather than stores. Then, as the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States, the retail food sector realized eight years of spending growth in just one month, while those same eight years saw the restaurant sector’s dollar growth collapse in a few tumultuous weeks.

To what extent consumers return to restaurants depends on myriad factors, such as how many remain solvent, how they manage capacity onsite and with carryout options, whether they blend adjacent lines of business, such as food retail into their portfolios, as well as how much consumers want to return to restaurants amid their own economic realities.

Safety and Cleanliness

Like convenience stores, grocery stores are essentials businesses and have remained opened throughout the pandemic, giving both retail channels an opportunity to communicate messages of trust and dedication to prioritizing customer and employee safety.

The FMI report found that hygiene and minimizing contact with others and the store itself rate high among grocery consumers:

  • Keeping store clean and sanitized (57%)
  • Provide sanitation wipes for carts (52%)
  • Extra sanitization throughout the store (52%)
  • Extra sanitization at checkout (50%)
  • Minimize number of shoppers in store (38%)
  • Open special hours for certain groups (elderly) (33%)
  • Minimize employee handling of food (32%)
A recent NACS consumer survey revealed similar sentiments around consumer expectations for safety and cleanliness in convenience stores. The survey found that consumers want stores to:
  • Provide free hand sanitizer or disinfecting wipes at all entrances (68%) and gas pumps (67%)
  • Require all employees to wear masks (65%)
  • Require all stores to perform enhanced cleaning and disinfecting multiple times per day (65%)
  • Require all customers to stay six feet apart inside the store (60%)
  • Limit the number of customers allowed in the store at one time (57%)
  • Install screens or Plexiglas sneeze guards (57%)
  • Require all customers to wear masks (50%)

The NACS consumer survey also noted that consumer interest in concepts like cashierless checkout, curbside pickup and delivery has grown and attracted more interest during the past four months due to the safety benefits that these concepts can provide.

The Rise of Online

In early 2020, 14.5% of grocery spending was online, a significant increase over the previous year. However, COVID-19 greatly accelerated the move to online grocery shopping, with online spending doubling to 27.9% of all grocery spending during March and April.

The FMI report found that beyond more consumer dollars shifting to online grocery sales, 20% of consumers said they were shopping online for groceries for the first time, and many reported using curbside pickup for the first time. More fresh product categories are also being purchased online that previously held long-standing shopper barriers around freshness and quality. In March and April more consumers purchased:

  • Fresh produce (12%)
  • Milk or non-dairy substitutes (12%)
  • Refrigerated dairy foods (11%)
  • Frozen foods (11%)
  • Fresh meats and seafood (9%)

“It is especially difficult at this moment to predict how ‘sticky’ this online usage will be. Many households have leaned on online grocery options in the past to solve short-term shopping challenges like injury or childbirth, only to revert to in-store habits,” notes the report, suggesting that if the pandemic proves to be different and more consumers remain online shoppers, it may be because online touchpoints will have performed better against obstacles such as a lack of control over substitutions, higher prices, out-of-stocks and challenges with securing delivery/pickup windows—"or because in-store touchpoints will have become less attractive due to ongoing pandemic concerns.”

Leslie Sarasin, president and CEO of FMI, said in a press release that most consumers expect to return to their pre-pandemic levels of in-store grocery shopping, and more than a fourth of consumers expect to be ordering more groceries online in the future. “The food industry will continue to listen to consumers and let them guide us on how to best meet their changing household needs.”

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.

Chris Blasinsky, who has been working from home since March 13 and driven her car roughly 30 miles since, is the NACS content communications strategist. She can be reached at cblasinsky@convenience.org, and on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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