Which Pandemic-Inspired Purchasing Shifts Will Stick?

NielsenIQ finds COVID breeds next-gen germaphobes, convenience lovers and experimentalists.

June 04, 2021

Masked Shoppers

NEW YORK—The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically altered the way we have lived our lives during the past year, and in the process, prompted many to acquire habit-forming purchase behaviors that are poised to have lasting impacts on the sales performance of select categories. As vaccine rollouts progress and shoppers begin returning to brick-and-mortar stores more frequently, some pandemic-related consumption shifts will fade, while others will have a lasting impact on purchase behavior.

NielsenIQ recently examined millions of brick-and-mortar and online shopping occasions to identify which categories have shown a consistent level of increased purchasing over the 14 four-week periods since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the pandemic substantially shifted lifestyles during the past 15 months, it presented shoppers with the opportunity to experiment with new foods, flavors, ingredients and recipes they have traditionally avoided due to a lack of familiarity, experience and confidence with preparation and cooking techniques. Seafood, plant-based meat alternatives, fresh herbs and marinades have all shown consistent in-store growth throughout the pandemic, and many industry experts foresee staying power for each.

As one of the biggest shifts in the food industry in general, and during the pandemic in particular, plant-based meat alternatives went from virtual obscurity to an important segment at a time when more people are cutting back on meat consumption and are looking for more sustainable foods. The plant-based trend not only accelerated as the pandemic took hold—as evidenced by NielsenIQ intelligence that found year-over-year alternative meat sales increased 25% during the 52 weeks ended May 1, 2021,—but is also expected to linger long after the pandemic is a thing of the past. Meat alternatives also made great gains among online shoppers, which drove the plant-based meat category up 160%. Accordingly, the tidal wave of plant-based food demand doesn't appear temporary but likely represents a lasting shift in consumer preferences.

While grocery stores and e-tailers benefitted tremendously when eating at home became the norm during the past year, the restaurant industry was significantly impacted by the shift, which led to $240 billion in lost revenue and 110,000 restaurant closures, according to the National Restaurant Association.

With commutes to offices and schools curtailed, breakfast establishments and coffee shops were among the hardest hit when household residents became accustomed to eating a more leisurely breakfast at home and drinking their home-brewed coffee on a daily basis. The less- harried morning routines, which boosted demand for sausage, waffles and cereal, allowed families to delay their breakfast time and defer to a bigger meal later in the day, although it remains to be seen if these categories will retain their prominence as the pandemic subsides.

After a year of mass disruption, consumers are looking for ease and convenience to simplify their lives. The pandemic highlighted the role convenience plays in daily routines, and many have adopted the mantra of “the simpler the better” as words to live by.

Not only did COVID-19 change how consumers shop, but it also changed what they put into their shopping carts, particularly in the frozen food aisles, where consumers returned to shopping in a big way. Commenting on the renewed popularity of frozen fruits and vegetables, NielsenIQ’s Carman Allison said many manufacturers “took full advantage of seeking to re-educate consumers on the freshness, quality and value of frozen products—all of which have really evolved over time as well.” Frozen foods also offer less food waste, which is an issue that has become increasingly important for many consumers.

For more insights on category performance in the convenience retail channel in 2020, read the June issue of NACS Magazine featuring exclusive coverage of the 2021 NACS State of the Industry Summit.

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Coronavirus Resources

NACS has compiled resources to help the convenience retail community navigate the COVID-19 crisis, including information about how to educate employees about the vaccines and other vaccine-related human resources advice. For news updates and guidance, visit our coronavirus resources page.