Between stoops lined with delivery bags, Plexiglas dividers at checkouts and household limits on butter, milk and other staples, grocery shopping became virtually unrecognizable over the past year-and-a-half.
During the pandemic, nearly 60% of U.S. consumers were buying groceries online (up from 36.8% in 2019). And despite 40% of consumers visiting grocery stores less often during the pandemic, average weekly spending on groceries was up 17%.
So much has already been written about how grocery habits changed during the pandemic, but not nearly enough has been written about why.
Understanding why new habits formed during the pandemic can help marketers discover which are here to stay, which will become relics of the COVID era and what they must do to prepare for a post-pandemic world.
To uncover the “why,” we interviewed consumers across the country about their grocery shopping, eating, and cooking habits. Through these conversations, five mandatories for marketing to the post-pandemic grocery shopper were uncovered (both IRL and online).
Bring joy back to the kitchen
Even as they’ve fallen in love with mealtime together, many home cooks have fallen out of love with their kitchens. Unsurprisingly, cooking fatigue runs the risk of becoming a threat to brands across every aisle of the grocery store.
“I was baking more at the beginning of quarantine but now I’m so sick of it. It’s just too much effort...I’ll be very okay not cooking for anyone for a while.” Lauren, Michigan
“I think that during COVID, business was slow, work was slow. And I was able to enjoy that a lot more. But nowadays things are sort of moving back to the pace where they used to be before…I don't have that much time to bake as I was doing before. But when I do, I still enjoy it. But now I have to find the time for it.” Ailyn, Florida
“Things are starting to get busier, my bandwidth for putzy baking projects has decreased in 2021.” Franny, North Carolina
Many consumers are tiring of cooking at home. But that doesn’t mean they’ve grown tired of home-cooked meals.
Following a record-setting amount of home renovations, one of the first ways we expect to enter the post-COVID world is through entertaining and gathering in our refreshed homes.
“We just remodeled our kitchen. So I'm really excited to start to get to use it more and cook more and making more and invite people over to have dinner. So that's something that I'm looking forward to, having more people over.” Aileen, Florida
Several CPG food brands continue to report significant growth throughout the pandemic. If brands hope to sustain this success, they’ll have to focus on fostering the enthusiasm for cooking that existed during the bread-baking phase of the pandemic. From new recipes to kitchen hacks, the challenge for brands will be keeping joy in the kitchen.
Humanize and localize your brand
Between supply chain limitations and a greater consumer focus on the food system, grocery shoppers began thinking more about where their food came from during COVID. For many, this even meant changing their grocery store.
“During COVID, we’ve started to think more about what we can get from this farm or [that] farm at the farmers market or local stores…It gives you a sense of community.” Whit, Michigan
“Since the pandemic started, we’ve started shopping much more locally. I think the opportunity to maximize the amount of stuff we buy locally has been really great. It supports the local economy, it reduces the carbon footprint of the food, at least transportation-wise. It helps keep the food seasonal, and it's more likely to be organic or humanely produced.” Peggy, Georgia
With few companies having local stories for every market, brands must find ways to connect with consumers who are yearning to support their community and the small businesses in them. Sharing your local story or elevating the real people who make your brand will be critical to staying connected to this consumer focus.
Optimize your brand’s presence for both IRL and online aisles
As the country reopens, signs point to consumers continuing online grocery shopping and returning to in-store shopping. In a post-pandemic world, effective online grocery shopping isn’t about avoiding crowds but rather convenience and saving time. Conversely, effective in-person grocery store shopping will need to deliver a standout physical experience, as consumers who return will do so for the sensory and human interaction.
“We did a lot of Instacart this last year. That’s starting to change a little bit…But in general, I think we’ll probably keep the online shopping. We’ll still do a Costco run or pop out to the neighborhood shop, but [online is] much more convenient.” Katie, California
“I look forward to me feeling comfortable being back in the grocery store, because I am kind of a browsing shopper and I get inspiration from looking at the shelves. So, I do hope that even though we will keep buying a lot of staples locally, I look forward to going back and browsing more.” Peggy, Georgia
Going forward, brands must respond to consumer needs by ensuring a consistent presence on online grocery platforms with products, content and marketing that enable convenience and a brick-and-mortar-experience that delivers the tactile and browsing ability consumers have missed during the pandemic.
Defend the dinner table
As schedules fill up again with soccer practice, happy hours and travel, consumers’ lives are returning to a familiar level of pre-pandemic busyness. And many consumers fear one casualty will be the family mealtime COVID restrictions fostered.
“[One positive of COVID is] looking at things like mealtime as a time to spend together with your family or have some of these dinner table conversations about other things going on in life and not let everything be so superficial.” Andy, Minnesota
Family dinner has been a trope in food marketing for generations. But as mealtime is threatened by the return to activities and socializing, consumers are fighting to maintain it. There’s a greater focus on what truly matters: time with family, enjoying the outdoors and simply slowing down. As RJ from Missouri put it, “I’ve loved spending more time as a family…I want to continue to treat my time and energy as the limited resource that it is and be more discerning about how I spend it.”
Brands that step up to support this family time with marketing that features moments at the table are well on their way to achieving the emotional resonance necessary to make a lasting post-COVID impression.
Emphasize health benefits
As the pandemic began and concerns over personal health and safety mounted, consumers were considering the impact of their diets more than ever. It’s why in May of 2020, Vitamin C-packed oranges saw a 73% sales increase year over year. But even as the dust settles on COVID itself, healthy eating habits are here to stay.
“We’ve become much more health conscious. I think COVID has helped in terms of, you know, stopping impulse shopping and stuff like that.” Lesley, New Hampshire
“The healthier eating is new for me during COVID. It’s been easier to do working from home. I don't have to walk around and pass like a Starbucks or a bagel or everything else that is around.” Megan, Iowa
“I wouldn’t say I’m into health foods per se, but I’ve gotten into the idea of intuitive eating. Balanced eating. Stuff that is good and flavorful. I’m generally looking to strike a good balance with cost, with health, with ingredients.” Franny, North Carolina
For brands that can make health claims, it’s more important than ever to emphasize them. With more consumers paying attention to healthier eating (and establishing new, diverse definitions of health), now is the time for brands to position themselves for healthy lifestyles.
As the country crawls back to normal, the future of the grocery store remains uncertain. But considering why grocery habits changed during the pandemic will help brands navigate the food industry for years to come.