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How the coronavirus pandemic is changing US grocery shopping habits

Experts from Acosta share insights into what shoppers are buying, how their habits are changing and how to prepare for what’s next.

4 min read


How the coronavirus pandemic is changing US grocery shopping habits

Image: AdobeStock

This post is sponsored by Acosta.

Consumer grocery shopping habits in the US have changed as the coronavirus pandemic has progressed, and keeping a finger on the pulse of shoppers can help retailers and manufacturers meet consumers’ evolving needs and prepare for what’s next.

Shopper concern about the pandemic has escalated over the past several months, causing consumers to reduce their trips to the store and adjust the items on their grocery lists, according to an ongoing consumer survey conducted by Acosta.

In a May 7 webinar titled “How COVID-19 is Shaping Shopper Behavior,” two executives from the sales and marketing company discussed the findings of the survey and what they mean for the future of US grocery shopping.

Shoppers adjust what and how they buy

The items most in-demand among shoppers have changed over the course of the pandemic, said Colin Stewart, Acosta’s executive vice president of business intelligence.

“Early in the crisis it was more cleaning products and toilet paper, bottled water and hand sanitizers. Then there was a shift to more pantry-loading items like soup, pasta and rice, and most recently we’ve seen a shift to more comfort foods and meal preparation foods,” he said, noting that frozen foods have done extremely well over the last couple weeks, as have meat and dairy products.

In addition to tracking shifts in what shoppers buy, Acosta has also noted drastic changes in how consumers obtain their groceries.

“Shoppers have now implemented new behaviors, many of which we expect will have some lasting impact on shopping as we move ahead,” Stewart said. “For example, right now shoppers are making fewer trips across all channels, while the grocery channel has actually gained market share over the past eight weeks and the mass merchandisers and drug stores have lost some market share.”

Consumers are making 52% fewer grocery shopping trips, in line with recommendations from the CDC, Acosta found in the third round of its consumer survey, conducted during the first week of April. However, surveys show that online grocery is thriving, with 38% of shoppers placing an order in the past four weeks.

The growing number of consumers placing grocery orders for pick-up and/or delivery includes a large group of shoppers that are trying these options for the first time, Stewart said.

“Historically, if you looked at e-commerce it skewed a bit younger, but with COVID-19 the Boomer generation is one of the fastest growing segments of shoppers that is shopping online,” he said.

Considering the fact that the sudden increase in demand for online grocery ordering has accelerated the grocery e-commerce trend by two to three years for most retailers, “the retailer response to this crisis has been impressive,” said John Bierfeldt, Acosta’s executive vice president of client development.

“Thousands of new employees have been hired across the country over the last few weeks, many just to handle curbside pickup programs.”

Another bright spot that has emerged from these unprecedented times is the collaboration between retailers and manufacturers, Bierfeldt noted.

“In general, I would say manufacturers and retailers have worked really well together over the last seven weeks…for the most part everyone has really come together, put aside differences and valued the important role food plays during a pandemic,” he said.

Planning for the new normal

This collaboration between manufacturers and retailers will continue to be key as the grocery industry adjusts to the new normal.

“In the near-term, shoppers will be making fewer trips and stocking up, which has implications on both assortment and pack sizes at retail,” Stewart said.

More than half (56%) of consumers surveyed by Acosta said they are likely to continue eating at home more than they used to even after the pandemic is over, which creates an opportunity for brands and retailers to meet the increasing demand for meal solutions.

With employment levels declining as the pandemic continues, it’s likely that value-focused options will be increasingly important to shoppers, said Stewart, who noted that during a recession shoppers tend to trade down when it comes to brands.

“Meeting the evolving needs of the shopper will definitely be the next challenge,” said Bierfeldt, advising that “retailers who own and leverage their own data will have a significant head start.”

For more insights from Acosta, including infographics of the “Grocery Shopping During the COVID-19 Outbreak” reports, access the on-demand webinar.


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