Fewer Product Options for Americans?

COVID-19 forced retailers to limit their selections, and that change may become permanent.

June 30, 2020

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—Back before the coronavirus pandemic, IGA’s 1,100 U.S. grocery stores carried about 40 varieties of toilet paper. Those stores now offer only four choices, reports the Wall Street Journal. Like most consumer-oriented companies, IGA has spent the past few decades trying to please everyone, but the pandemic has made that impossible.

Sellers of everything from potato chips to cars have been narrowing offerings since the coronavirus disrupted supply chains. Some retailers plan to stick with fewer choices when the pandemic is over, saying that the recent months have forced them to reconsider whether American consumers need so many choices.

In grocery stores, the average number of different items sold was down 7.3% over the four weeks ended June 13, Morgan Seybert, a director of analytics at market-research firm Nielsen, told the Journal. The variety in some categories, such as baby care, bakery and meat, fell as much as 30% earlier in the pandemic. Executives from Kraft, Coca-Cola and Hershey have announced that they are trimming less-efficient, less-profitable products, while shelving some in development.

Steven Williams, CEO of PepsiCo’s North America foods business, said his company stopped producing a fifth of its products during the pandemic. He and his colleagues spoke with grocery executives as the pandemic deepened and determined that PepsiCo should focus on delivering its fastest-selling products. He expects the company’s Frito-Lay snacks business to emerge from the pandemic with 3% to 5% fewer products.

For decades, companies have been offering consumers more choices. Over the past 45 years, Lay’s has gone from four varieties of chips to 60. Since 1984, Campbell Soup has quadrupled the types of soup it sells to about 400. In 2018, the average U.S. food retailer stocked about 33,000 different items, compared with roughly 9,000 in 1975, according to the Food Industry Association. 

Pandemic panic-buying cleared supermarket shelves in March, and retailers were worried about how quickly they could restock. During the past few months, retailers and food companies have decided to cut back on options, streamline supply chains and concentrate on the most in demand goods, said Mark Smucker, CEO of J.M. Smucker, which has paused production of reduced-fat Jif peanut butter and reduced-sugar Uncrustables frozen peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches.

The huge demand for toilet paper early in the pandemic led Georgia-Pacific to switch all production of its Quilted Northern toilet paper to 328-sheet rolls, and officials say they’ll stick with the bigger rolls after the pandemic, because the change makes production and distribution more efficient.

Restaurants are editing their menus as well. Darden Restaurants plans to keep the slimmed-down menus it started during the pandemic because they’ve helped reduce prep work and costs. McDonald’s has said it will keep dozens of items—including salads and bagels—off U.S. menus for now but could bring them back later.

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.

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