US food shoppers change strategy during the pandemic

April 22, 2020
3 min read

As the basics of everyday life like toilet paper and dried pasta become hard to find, shopping habits have changed. Will these new behaviors last?

The role of the quartermaster has a long history

In the US, the role of the Quartermaster General originated on 16 June 1775, two days after Congress authorized the Continental Army.

The Quartermaster General oversaw the overall supply of the armies. This included providing soldiers with adequate food, clothing and other supplies needed to sustain the soldiers on campaign and in camp.

As the COVID-19 virus spread around the world, consumers suddenly found themselves placed in the role of family quartermasters, stockpiling essentials for an indeterminate period of time.

Having to provision a household for any length of time is a challenge, as consumers have been changing their shopping habits “on the fly” under shifting conditions and circumstances over the past month.

The question for retailers and manufacturers is what the lasting impact on shopping habits and behaviors will be.

In the COVID-19 era, consumers are stocking up more

The speed at which COVID-19 made its impact across America took many consumers by surprise. Suddenly, after years of almost instant access to food, they were urged to make sure they had enough food on hand for the long haul.

In the first week of March, only 16% of consumers reported stocking up on groceries. By mid-April, about six in 10 consumers reported that they were stocking up, according to Mintel COVID-19 tracker data.

Little preparation, lots of panic

In an era when food is plentiful and available at a wide range of outlets, American consumers have become used to a pattern of “shop when you need it.” This is especially applicable to consumers whose shopping method focuses on a “fresh is best” approach.

Indeed, over the past years, there has been a noticeable growth in shopping the “perimeter of the store” (primarily fresh foods), while center-of-the-store products have fallen from favor.

As a result of the defection to the fresh aisles, center-of-the-store sales have floundered; products there generated sales of US$300 billion in 2019, a 1.7% increase over the prior year. Adjusted for inflation, the 2019 inflation-adjusted total remained unchanged from 2014.

After the “lockdown” is over, will consumers change their shopping patterns?

Some will embrace their quartermaster status
Older and rural shoppers will likely be the “new quartermasters.” Older shoppers are more familiar with keeping a household stocked. Similarly, rural shoppers are more likely to keep well stocked because of the distance from home to store.

Others will return to their multi-trip ways
Younger (Gen Z and Millennial) shoppers, for whom shopping is a well-established and enjoyable habit, are the consumers who will return to their multi-trip ways. But, they are likely to make sure that some of those trips include pantry staples.

It’s not just the shopper, it’s the space at home
Those in limited spaces are looking for smaller packages, but these smaller packages have to deliver a bigger punch. Tight spaces will dictate opportunities for concentrates, freeze-dried foods and other “small-to-big” ingredients and packages.

eCommerce provides at least a partial solution
Watch for shoppers to familiarize themselves with online pantry-staple shopping. Amazon and other platforms have made this easier by offering continued replenishment options and the use of assists such as these is likely to grow in appeal.

What we think

After “shelter-in-place” orders are lifted across the country, Americans will return to grocery shopping. The way they return will have changed, however, and the need to be prepared for disaster will become an underlying driver behind planning, purchasing and stocking food.

Marcia Mogelonsky
Marcia Mogelonsky

Marcia Mogelonsky, Ph. D. is the Director of Insight, Food & Drink, at Mintel. Her expertise focuses on consumer behavior across a range of categories.

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