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Mandated to stay at home, cooking fatigue sets in

Since mid-March, millions of Americans have been doing what once not that long ago would have been unimagined: adhering to government-mandated stay-at-home orders, which have limited social interactions and travel, in a nationwide effort to control the novel coronavirus. In this nationwide response to the COVID-19 health crisis, lives and lifestyles have been dramatically altered as consumers face the realities of the moment by adapting meal planning, shopping and cooking behaviors.

To understand how the pandemic is impacting consumers’ lives right now, The Hartman Group has been conducting ongoing qualitative and quantitative research around this evolving situation. Our approach to qualitative research is particularly unique in our efforts to contextualize our observations and insights within food culture resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. It is our interpretive lens that creates the depth and richness of our findings and distinct POV on the near- and long-term implications for business.

Speaking with consumers during recent mobile ethnographies, one thing that really stood out to us is how quickly consumers are finding new avenues to meet both ongoing and emerging needs. Some of these needs existed prior to the COVID-19 crisis and are quite foundational. These needs like parents trying to feed their kids, in general, or just trying to please everyone who's sitting at a meal together, specifically, are taking on an elevated sense of urgency.

New tension points in the kitchen

The kitchen has long been the vibrant hub of home life. Yet in many homes today, the kitchen has become a multipurpose space: part-time office, part-time kitchen, part-time school. Through it all, the kitchen remains the space where meal prep, cooking and eating take place.

Some consumers with limited home-cooking skills are motivated to learn more as a form of recreation and less as a necessary chore, while others are relying more on canned and frozen items. Parents are bringing their kids into the kitchen as a way to keep them entertained and occupied, teaching them fundamental cooking skills in the process.

The Hartman Group/FMI U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends COVID-19 Tracker report (May 13-24) finds that in planning meals, focus often goes to minimizing trips and waste through smart use of perishables. Over one-third (36%) feel they are now eating healthier. Younger consumers especially have adjusted how they eat, with more emphasis on maintaining a healthy body while at home. Older consumers aim to safeguard their health via prudent consumption, minimizing trips and waste.

During the timeframe of the report during the lockdown, 41% of consumers said they were cooking more of their meals, 27% said they were “planning more meals in advance, and 20% said they were trying more new dishes.

Our qualitative research finds that consumers are navigating an unprecedented shift in American society that will have lasting effects on U.S. food culture, changing consumers’ collective and individual experiences in both broad and targeted ways.

  • Consumers are reevaluating the very necessity of shopping trips and turning to larger, less frequent trips and alternative modes of sourcing perceived to be safer, such as online and click and collect.
  • The desire for preparation in consumers’ food repertoires will be expressed as maintaining a well-stocked pantry.
  • Looking farther ahead, new routines that focus on preparation for the unknown are likely to have lasting impacts.

In an environment where many aspects of traditional convenience are not available (dining out, reliable access to specific foods) and routines and priorities are shifting, consumers are rethinking their approach to food more than ever and finding new solutions that respond to evolving considerations.

COVID-19 has exposed new tensions and amplified existing concerns, leading to shifts in core trends related to personal empowerment, individual and collective resilience, connectivity and systemic change. This, in turn, has impacted consumer values around quality, value, food sourcing, social justice, commensality and waste.

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As CEO of The Hartman Group, Demeritt drives the vision, strategy, operations and results-oriented culture for the company's associates as The Hartman Group furthers its offerings of tactical thinking, consumer and market intelligence, cultural competency and innovative intellectual capital to a global marketplace.

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