Food and Nutrition

How COVID-19 Has Transformed the Grocery Shopping Experience for the Foreseeable Future

Emily Laurence

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Without a doubt, grocery shopping has looked a lot different over the past three-and-a-half months—and it definitely still doesn’t look the same as it did B.C. (before coronavirus). Sure, the toilet paper hoarding has mostly subsided, but many people are still opting for delivery or curb-side pickup even if their cities have opened back up, and some areas are experiencing a shortage in certain foods, like meat, as the pandemic has impacted supply chains.

According to a spokesperson from grocery delivery service Instacart, the company has experienced a 500 percent increase in customers the past several months compared to this time last year. The demand was so great that the company hired 250,000 more shoppers to meet customer needs. Additionally, a spokesperson from meal kit service HelloFresh says it has seen an 88 percent increase in U.S. active customers compared to this time last year, another nod to people looking for alternative methods to food sourcing instead of doing their grocery shopping themselves.

Those who do venture into grocery stores may notice that the shelves (and indeed, the entire store) may look different these days, not finding some of their standard key items. Additionally, the types of foods they gravitate toward buying has changed too, according to trend analytic experts. Clearly the pandemic has changed the way we grocery shop more than we may realize.

How the pandemic has changed the way we get our groceries

Perhaps the most obvious way COVID-19 has changed the grocery shopping landscape is the preferred method in which we’re actually choosing to get our food. As the stats from Instacart and HelloFresh indicate, an increasing number of people are looking for ways to avoid actually stepping foot in a grocery store altogether.

In addition to HelloFresh’s increase in customers, other meal kit services have experienced customer increases since the beginning of the year, including Daily Harvest (a 228 percent increase), Home Chef (a 108 percent increase), and Green Chef (a 90 percent increase), according to SEMrush, a trends data provider. That reveals the dramatic increase in interest among meal kit delivery services in March (search was five times higher than it was in previous months), says Sarah Barnes, a content marketing manager at analytics platform Trendalytics. Although she says the interest in meal kit delivery is starting to dip down a bit, it’s still higher than it was before the pandemic. “At first, people were doing these meal kits out of necessity and to avoid going to the grocery store. But now, a lot of people have gotten into the habit of them, so they’re continuing to do them, even though they don’t necessarily feel like they have to anymore,” she says.

“Because of the pandemic, what we’re seeing is entire generations of people ordering food and beverage products online for the first time ever.” —Zak Normandin, founder and CEO of Iris Nova

There’s also been an increase in text-to-order services. According to Zak Normandin, founder and CEO of Iris Nova (which includes the beverage brands Dirty Lemon, Halo Sport, and Minna, among others), all their beverage brands had a text-to-order ability before the pandemic, but use of that tech surged over the past few months. Dirty Lemon saw a 27 percent increase in use of their text-to-order services since the beginning of the year, and Halo saw a whopping 578 percent increase. “As a company overall, we’re up 120 percent [since January] and I think that speaks to the change in consumer behavior,” Normandin says. “Because of the pandemic, what we’re seeing is entire generations of people ordering food and beverage products online for the first time ever, which at first was because of necessity.”

Normandin says he believes the pandemic has forced brands to adapt to meet consumer needs in new ways, propelling the industry several years into the future. And he expects the habits of buying items online, or as the case often is with his brands, texting, to last long after the pandemic ends. “Experts say it takes two weeks to form a habit and now we’re a few months into this behavior change, so I definitely think people’s [grocery shopping] habits are changing for good,” he says. “People are realizing the convenience of it, it will be really difficult to go back to the way they were shopping before.”

Combined, all this intel shows that even as people start feeling more comfortable being in public areas, including the supermarket, the behavior changes of shopping online, texting to order, and cooking with meal kits is here to stay in a bigger way.

How the pandemic is changing the way we think about food

The pandemic is also changing the type of items people are buying. Some of the changes speak to the desire to stock up, which is perhaps expected in a time in which people want to decrease the frequency of their grocery shopping. In March (once the pandemic hit the U.S. in full force), there was a 346 percent increase in canned fruits and vegetables among Instacart customers, compared to earlier in the year—and a whopping 770 percent increase compared to this time last year, according to their data. Canned meat saw an increase of 523 percent compared to this time last year. But the biggest change centered around baking yeast, which saw a 6,650 percent jump in sales from last year. (Hello, quarantine bread baking!)

People are also buying more food than they previously did, speaking again to the trend of stockpiling. According to data from the FMI-The Food Industry Association’s annual 2020 U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends Study (released in June), food retail revenue in April and beyond is 10 percent higher than it was pre-pandemic. The average weekly grocery bill was $130 in late April, after earlier heights of $161 in late March and early April.

Stocking up on pantry goods may be situational, but it’s also indicative of a change that may be more long-lasting: People are cooking a lot more than they did before. According to a report by strategic and creative communications firm Hunter, 54 percent of people are cooking more now than they were at the beginning of the year and 50 percent of people feel more confident in the kitchen. Additionally, 51 percent say they plan on keeping up the amount their cooking after the pandemic ends.

Barnes, of Trendalytics, says their research suggests that the pandemic may have changed the way we think about food in another big way. Barnes says that according to Google data, there’s been a decrease in searches and purchases surrounding foods pegged to specific types of diets. (Think: ketogenic, Paleo, and Whole30.)

“This was already shifting before the pandemic with the growing interest in plant-based eating replacing these [specific] types of eating plans, but the pandemic seems to have caused people to really think about their food choices in a new way,” Barnes says. “For example, the interest around vegan items remained the same, and I think that’s because it’s more deeply tied to moralistic choices people aren’t willing to compromise—even during a pandemic—whereas items related to the other eating plans seems to be more optional.”

Kristin Breakell, a content strategist at Trendalytics, raises the point that more Americans are feeling economic stress from the pandemic, leading to a decrease in sales among many speciality items, such as alternative flours. To this point, she said there’s even been a decrease in sales of gluten-free items, showing that for many, buying the items was a dietary choice and not a necessity.

How the grocery store experience is changing

Despite the increase in grocery delivery and meal kits, people will, of course, continue to grocery shop IRL. But there have certainly been changes to the in-store experience that will likely be our new normal for the duration of the pandemic. One is that customers are being more critical about sanitary standards than they were before. While in the past, many may have thought nothing of popping a grape in their mouth as they perused the produce aisles, there’s now a sharp eye on how sanitized items are.

One is an added emphasis on cleaning and sanitation. Kristal Howard, the head of corporate communications and media relations at Kroger, says the company has provided masks to all employees, installed plexiglass partitions at every check lane, and established capacity limits. Other stores have also made various aisles one-way only to limit foot traffic, and set up signs throughout the store reminding customers to maintain six feet of distance wherever possible.

The pandemic has also shone a spotlight on the needs of grocery store workers. Many make minimum wage with limited protections and hazard pay—despite their essential status, and despite their parent companies enjoying record profits during COVID-19. (Instacart sold $700 million in groceries in the first two weeks of April alone; Amazon earned $75 billion in the first three months of the year; grocery stores across the country have enjoyed record sales during the pandemic.) Grocery and retail workers have organized strikes for improved pay and better safety protections with some success. Amazon and Target raised worker wages by $2 an hour, expanded sick leave, and put stricter cleaning practices in place (although Amazon’s wages returned to $15 an hour at the end of May.) Instacart has addressed some issues—including providing “health and safety kits” to workers and expanding financial assistance to those who get sick on the job—but some workers still report frustrations.

COVID-19 has also led to food shortages across the country. The shortage that has been in the news the most is meat, which happened largely due to shut-downs of major meatpacking plants. “This happened because there were some [COVID-19] outbreaks at several of the meat processing facilities that forced them to shut down for the safety of their workers,” says Ben Ruddell, PhD, an environmental consultant and an associate professor at Northern Arizona University.

“Given that many migrant picking and packing operations involve people in close quarters, living in crowded conditions, and traveling by bus all together, we’re actually lucky there haven’t been more outbreaks and shortages haven’t been worse,” Dr. Dr. Ruddell says. “I would expect that at some point during the pandemic, [more outbreaks at food processing facilities] will happen, which could potentially cause some other types of food shortages.” COVID-19 has so far disrupted the food system in other ways, including causing a surplus of milk due to a decrease in sales and school cafeteria closures, and restrictions on exporting, which have had a negative financial effect on many agricultural farmers.

Despite this, Dr. Ruddell says that after the pandemic, he expects the food system to return as it was pretty quickly and does not foresee any long-term food sourcing problems—at least in the U.S. (Global food shortage is another issue entirely.) So if you’re not finding meat or other items at your local grocery store currently, it’s an obstacle that hopefully won’t last forever.

Because of the meat shortage, there has been an increase in sales for meat substitute products and this is a change Dr. Ruddell expects to continue, even after the meat supply issue is resolved. “The outbreaks at the meat facility plants is yet another reason for us to consume less meat,” he says. “It’s a healthy dose of perspective.”

What’s clear across the board is that the pandemic has not only changed how we grocery shop, it’s also changed how we think about food completely. And not all of those changes are bad. Cooking more at home, recognizing (and improving) the working conditions of food industry employees, and not being consumed by diet culture are all changes worth acknowledging.

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