COVID-19 Has Changed How People Shop for Food

And experts believe these changes may be permanent.

September 10, 2020

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—With the arrival of COVID-19, U.S. grocers saw eight years of projected sales growth packed into one month, according to the New York Times, and now for the first time in a generation, Americans are spending more money at the supermarket than at places where someone else made the food.

Although kitchen fatigue is setting in for many, a new set of kitchen habits have been set.

“People are moving on to more complex cooking, and we don’t see that going away,” said Rodney McMullen, chairman and chief executive of Kroger, where sales jumped 30% at the onset of the pandemic. He and industry leaders believe the pandemic-driven return to the kitchen could change grocery shopping forever. Here are seven ways the Times says the pandemic has already changed the way Americans buy food:

1. Trips Are Fewer, Lists Are Better

With a need to stay safe and avoid infection, people are making good shopping lists and are getting by on fewer trips to the store. “People now go to the store with purpose,” said John Owen, associate director for food and retail with Mintel, the market analysis group. “The number of trips went way down, and the size of the basket went way up in April. We have eased back on that, but not by much.”

2. Online Sales Are Big

A year ago, 81% of shoppers in a Gallup survey reported they never purchased groceries online. At that time, online grocery shopping was at around 3% of all grocery sales, or about $1.2 billion, according to Brick Meets Click/Mercatus. But in June, U.S. online grocery sales hit $7.2 billion.

“Even my parents are getting increasingly used to using their iPad,” said McMullen. “There are millions of people who have gotten used to cooking. They’ve found out they enjoyed it, and they’ve gotten used to tech and are understanding the benefits.”

Delivery is in big demand. Last week, Walmart announced a new $98-a-year subscription service that offers same-day delivery on 160,000 items, and Instacart is more than doubling its work force.

Curbside pickup also has exploded. Stores are converting parking lots to better handle the number of motorists arriving to pick up orders. Companies, including Kroger and Whole Foods, are opening “dark stores” that are designed solely for picking up or delivering orders placed online.

3. Orange is the New Snack

Produce sales have been riding high since March, and are still up 11% from a year earlier, said Joe Watson, vice president at the Produce Marketing Association. But it’s oranges that everyone wants.

In May, grocers sold 73% more oranges than during the same month in 2019. Even into July, sales remained 52% higher than a year before.

“Oranges were a surprise, but they are popular from an immunity standpoint,” Watson said. They also last longer than some other fruit, which matters when people are going to the store less often.

4. Redrawing the Store

Along with pandemic grocery shopping come wider aisles, new methods of sanitation and less-crowded stores. And shoppers want these changes to be permanent. Several grocery chains (including Kroger) have used the shift in pandemic shopping habits to install more self-serve kiosks and explore other touchless checkout methods.

Health concerns have also accelerated the growth in payment apps and self-checkout. Walmart is testing a new system that replaces traditional checkout lines with an open plaza ringed by 34 terminals. Shoppers can scan their purchases or wave down an employee to do the scanning for them.

However, some physical changes are fading. Publix, the 1,250-store chain based in Florida, discontinued its one-way traffic in aisles after customers complained.

5. Choices Are Shrinking

For decades, American supermarkets continued to offer more and different products and brands, but that’s changing.

Due to health risks, open-food sampling is discontinued, and there are fewer specialty promotions. Shoppers want to get in and out quickly, so they’re sticking to items they already know. Online shoppers, guided by algorithms and autofill, are less likely to make impulse purchases.

6. Frozen Food Is Hot

Sales of frozen food jumped 94% in March from a year earlier, according to the American Frozen Food Institute. That initial rush abated, but even in August, sales remained up almost 18%.

Early in the pandemic, shoppers loaded their freezers in what some in the grocery business politely refer to as “the initial pantry filling.” For some consumers, frozen fruit and vegetables became a less expensive and more reliable alternative to fresh. And once shoppers started exploring the freezer case, they found tastier new options, including healthier, clean labels and vegetarian lines.

7. ‘Local’ Is a Bigger Lure

The fragility of the supply chain, concerns over health and an appreciation of community have buoyed the movement toward local foods. There are waiting lists for community-supported agriculture subscriptions. Struggling restaurants have turned into provisioners. Grocers are teaming up with chefs to sell meal kits, and locally grown produce sells out quickly.

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.