KANSAS CITY, MO. — Altered consumer purchasing behaviors in the wake of the spreading coronavirus outbreak has food and beverage manufacturers as well as retailers scrambling to keep pace with the changes. While much focus has been on cleaning and personal care products, some food categories have experienced significant growth, and market researchers see consumer shopping patterns shifting to a new normal.
Sales of staples like dried beans rose 63% for the one-week period ended March 7 when compared to the previous four weeks, according to the market research company Nielsen. Rice sales spiked 58%, chickpeas/garbanzos 47%, powdered milk products 126%, water 42% and canned meat 58%.
Products that experienced a dip in sales included apples (-3%), papayas (-7%) and celery (-19%).
Nielsen has broken consumer response to the coronavirus outbreak into six categories – Proactive health-minded buying; reactive health management; pantry preparation; quarantines living preparation; restricted living; and living a new normal. In an article published March 16, the market researcher placed the United States squarely in category 5 — restricted living — and Canada in category 4 — pantry preparation.
Within the restricted living category, there are mass cases of the coronavirus and communities are ordered into lockdown. At this stage, consumers severely restrict shopping trips, online fulfillment is limited, and price concerns rise as limited stock availability impacts pricing in some cases.
Food delivery, click-and-collect, online shopping and home delivery are all expected to increase as consumers avoid going to areas where there may be large gatherings, according to Information Resources Inc. (IRI), Chicago. The market research company said click-and-collect and home delivery must be every retailer’s business priority.
Within the supply chain, IRI said the number of product choices consumers have going forward may be limited as manufacturers focus on production of top stock-keeping units to meet demand. Food and beverage “stockable” items IRI predicts will continue to be popular are shelf-stable and frozen food items, sports drinks and water.
The Center for Food Integrity (CFI), Kansas City, Mo., sees isolation and social distancing brought on by the coronavirus as causing unprecedented changes in consumer behavior.
“Buying patterns have shifted dramatically as people stock up on supplies,” said Carl Perrson, senior director of global cross-category consumer insights at PepsiCo, Inc., Purchase, NY. “In addition to hand sanitizers and toilet paper, shoppers are passing over fresh items to fill their carts with canned and frozen foods.
“It really is a reversal of everything we learned about shopper trends over the past decade or so. I imagine there’ll be a great awareness of the notion of preparation and of keeping a supply.”
The CFI’s Consumer Insights Trust Council has been meeting monthly since December to identify the early signals of emerging trends. At the March meeting the group saw an acceleration in consumer “homing” that has been building during the past few years.
“The world is a bit of a scary place,” said Susan Schwallie, executive director of the NPD Group’s Food and Beverage practice, Chicago. “The home has been a very comforting spot where we can get all of our entertainment and we can get just about anything delivered to us. Your home is your sanctuary.”
Factors driving the homing trend are millennials who see food as a social occasion and like to gather in their homes with friends, Schwallie said. Meal delivery and video streaming also make it possible to eat restaurant food at home and means consumers don’t have to go out to be entertained.
“That notion of cocooning and the search for safety, that’s been a long-term trend and the more chaotic the world gets, people search for these notions of what they know and trust,” Persson said. “My hunch will be that this (coronavirus outbreak) just reinforces that.”
On March 15, President Donald Trump met with executives from food manufacturing and retail to discuss the state of the supply chain. A result of the meeting is consumers were urged by the White House and other officials to reduce the level of panic buying that has occurred in some parts of the United States.
The CFI noted that as the situation around the world changes rapidly, so will the potential impact on the food system.
“It’s going to take us a little bit to see how this evolves and whether this does lead to fundamental changes in culture,” said Ujwal Arkulgud, founder of MotivBase, an ethnographic search engine from MotivIndex Inc., Toronto, and a member of CFI’s board of directors. “We know things are going to get worse. We just don't know the degree to which that will happen. Culturally and in terms of the impact on businesses, it’s a wait-and-watch game.”