COVID-19 Continues to Alter Food Shopping

Idaho Falls, ID – COVID-19 has drastically changed the way consumers shop for groceries.  Last week, Category Partners (CP) released and discussed results in part one of a two part consumer study that explored the economic impacts of COVID-19 on what consumers are now seeking from a product value and retailer format perspective.  

In part two today, Category Partners takes a deeper look at consumer feedback as it relates to how they are navigating the retail channel and in-store environment, purchase quantity and packaging.  

Consumers’ health concerns, stay-at-home orders in nearly every state, the closure of many restaurants and businesses and the fact that nearly half of American households have seen a reduction in their household income have all contributed to changes in where consumers buy groceries, how much they buy and how they shop.

In the Category Partners’ study, one-third of consumers, 34%, said because of COVID-19 they are using online delivery more often for their grocery purchases, and 27% are using online grocery pick-up more often.  Conversely, one-third of consumers said they are shopping at superstores less, 29% are shopping at supermarkets less, and about one-quarter of consumers are also shopping less at natural/organic stores and specialty stores.

In this study, CP polled 2,000 consumers throughout the U.S., aged 18-75+ (further demographic information below*), giving it the ability to study changes in shopping behavior across region, age and household income.

As might be expected, younger shoppers have embraced online grocery channel moreso than older shoppers.   Fortytwo percent of consumers younger than age 45 report using online grocery delivery more and 33% using online grocery pick-up more now than before the pandemic.  In comparison, fewer consumers age 45 and older said they have increased their use of online delivery and pickup, at 24% and 21%, respectively.   

Along with changes in where consumers shop, COVID-19 continues to affect what they buy.  Possibly because these items store well, about half of consumers, 51% respectively, reported they are buying more frozen foods and center store items.  Consumers are also buying more dairy, fresh fruit, fresh vegetables and fresh meat.  By contrast, 35% are buying less seafood than they ordinarily would.  A nearly equal number of consumers have increased the amount they purchase from the deli and bakery departments as have decreased the amount they buy.

The study also revealed significant differences across age groups.  Consumers under age 45 are more likely than older consumers to buy more food from each of the grocery departments.  For example, 46% of younger respondents said they are now buying more fresh fruit and 45% are now buying more fresh vegetables, compared to 30% and 29%, respectively, of respondents age 45+.  Likewise, 34% of those younger than 45 reported buying more dairy products, compared to only 19% of those 45+.  Cara Ammon, Category Partners’ senior vice president, research and market intel, noted, “This increase in food purchases among younger consumers makes sense.  Many are now working from home, or unfortunately are at home due to furlough, and many may have children home from school.  Families have gone from eating lunches and even breakfasts at work and school and eating many dinners on the run to eating all of their meals at home.  That makes a huge difference in their grocery purchases.”    

There are also differences by region.  Consumers living in the Northeast and the South more often reported stocking up on items from every department, while somewhat fewer consumers in the Midwest and West increased their purchases from each of these departments.

In addition to where they shop and what they buy, COVID19 has also changed how consumers shop.  One of the biggest shifts is toward packaged items and away from items that may have been handled by store staff.  Nearly half of consumers in the study, 46%, said they are now buying more packaged items.  A significant number are also taking steps to limit the number of people handling their food, including avoiding salad bars and other selfservice items (41%), using self-checkout (36%), avoiding the meat counter, deli counter and other items that require store staff to handle food (35%) and avoiding loose items (25%).  

Ammon added, “Consumers have made significant changes to just about every aspect of their grocery shopping behavior.  It will be interesting to see how many of these changes continue once the COVID-19 pandemic is over.  Some of these shopping behaviors may be here to stay.”

The study revealed that a greater number of younger consumers making changes to the way they shop for groceries.  Overall, 85% of consumers under age 45 made changes to the way they shop, while 74% of consumers age 45+ have made changes.  Specifically, more than half of respondents younger than 45, 53%, said they are now buying more packaged items, compared to 40% of those older than 45.  

“This will be a moving target,” concluded Ammon, “The lockdowns will end, the health crisis will abate and consumers will have in-store and restaurant options once again.  The larger economic pressures will linger a bit longer.  The value to retailers and suppliers in being prepared to understand and offer solutions these consumers seek and need cannot be understated.”

*HH income between <$25,000 and >$200,000, encompassing various ethnicities and nearly evenly split between female/male, release date April 20, 2020.

About Category Partners – a nationally recognized resource, among food companies and retailers, for delivering actionable business/consumer insights, marketing/sales plans and technology/data solutions. Category Partners is producer owned and headquartered in Idaho Falls, ID, with offices in Laguna Hills, Calif., Chicago, and Wenatchee, Wash.

For more information, contact CP president Adam Brohimer, at