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How fancy food brands can feed consumers in the pandemic and beyond

Consumers’ needs and cravings are continuing to evolve during the pandemic, flavoring new habits likely to last well into the future, Mintel Global Food Analyst Melanie Zanoza Bartelme said during a session at Fancy Food 24/7

“At Mintel, we’ve been using the term “the next normal” because, as we know, COVID and our reaction to COVID is a moving target,” Zanoza Bartelme said during a session titled “Understanding the Needs of the Evolving Pandemic-Era Consumer.”

One key shift has been the embrace of e-commerce across generations. The way consumers buy their food has shifted amid the need for convenience and safety, and many have become accustomed to grocery shopping online and expect to continue doing so.

“Consumers are thinking about online in entirely different ways across all aspects of their lives.”

While for many the pandemic-era shift to online shopping got off to a bit of a rocky start, consumers quickly grew accustomed to it. As demand grew, retailers and brands ironed out the kinks and they're continuing to find ways to smooth out the process.

Feeding the needs of hybrid workers

Convenience is key from another aspect related to the pandemic -- as many people have adjusted to working from home and are expected to craft hybrid working situations that will include working from the office sometimes and from home sometimes, the definition of meals has expanded.

Working from home meant consumers weren’t tied to specific meal times or traditional meals, trends that were in some ways already playing out pre-pandemic with the continued rise of snacking. Now, with the kitchen often just steps away, consumers are even freer to eat what they want when they want.

Nearly half of consumers surveyed said the pandemic affected where they eat and 36% said it affected how they eat, according to Mintel data.

“We talk a lot about ‘What is the future of on-the-go foods,’” Zanoza Bartelme said. “I would argue this flexibility actually makes convenience feel even more important. Being able to have something we can easily choose will help us create balance and control in our lives, so convenience foods will remain important.”

Treats become necessities

The unprecedented times created new opportunities for specialty food brands in particular, Zanoza Bartelme said. 

“These products have the ability to make our lives feel more special,” she said.

Small indulgences like a premium pasta sauce or a square of dark chocolate can create bright spots on dark days and perhaps restore a bit of normalcy.

“The ability to treat ourselves in small ways can help us get through when the world is on fire,” she said. 

Mintel’s survey data also highlight that people have had different pandemic experiences, with some reporting improved finances and others feeling a greater financial pinch.

Of US consumers surveyed, 43% reported that their finances have benefited from spending less on dining out, while 34% said higher grocery bills have taken a bite out of their budgets. Further, 28% said they would switch to less-expensive foods if the economy worsened.

“We know that some consumers are doing well,” she said

Many have cut costs by cutting out their commutes and putting vacations on hold, enabling them to spend more on specialty foods. At the same time, many others are struggling to make ends meet. 

Specialty food brands that are mindful of those varied experiences can court consumers at both ends of the spectrum, she said. More affluent households have the means to indulge in trying new flavors and stave off boredom by experimenting on new premium-priced products.

Meanwhile, brands can introduce themselves to cash-strapped consumers with affordable options like sample packs and smaller package sizes. 

“[These are] things that can make sure this wonderful ability our products have to bring out the best in consumers is available to everybody.”

Replacing travel with global flavors

Not surprisingly, 32% of consumers surveyed said they’ve grown bored with cooking for their households, fueling demand for new flavors.

While travel remains off the table for many, specialty food brands and foodservice companies have an opportunity to feed cravings for new flavors, from ethnic spices and seasonings to meal kits and tasting boxes like the State Fair tasting box from Jeni’s Splended Ice Creams. 

Brands that find ways to combine convenience and innovative new flavors will likely have a leg up in winning over new fans. 

Financial health is top-of-mind for many consumers but so are physical and mental health, both of which were considerations before the pandemic and have become even more a part of many consumers’ food choices as they balance the need for staying healthy with the craving for comfort during uncertain times. 

Here too, specialty food brands are addressing those needs, with new items like Annie’s Classic Shells & Cheese made with hidden vegetables and smaller-sized portions of popular salty and sweet snacks. 

“Maybe we don’t always need to hide the veggies,” she said. “Maybe we call out the veggies because we’re saying ‘You know what? This is still the classic food that you love, that’s going to make you feel great, but it also includes those other better-for-you ingredients that are going to make you feel like you made a good decision for yourself, which is going to make you feel great mentally and emotionally.’”

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