Woman with mask and gloves shopping in supermarket

The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced unprecedented disruptions to how consumers procure food, including disturbances to the supply chain, changes to how they plan their shopping trips and physically move through the store, and a meteoric rise of online shopping paired with a sudden interruption to restaurant dining.

With COVID-19 posing such a threat to the health and well-being of grocery shoppers and their families, we paid close attention to the topic of safety and in-store shopping in our recent Food Sourcing in America, July/August 2020 report, which explored the complex ways by which Americans procured foods and beverage both in-store and online six months into the pandemic. While the shift to online grocery shopping and related digital sourcing was a big story in 2020 as one way to minimize risk (for example, Food-Sourcing found 56% of shoppers saying they’d bought groceries online in the past 30 days), at the same time a big part of the food-sourcing story includes physical in-store shopping as shoppers continue to attempt to feed their households through traditional (though now much more complex) means.

When it comes to in-store grocery shopping, while consumers are primarily focused on safety, security, and protecting themselves and their family members from exposure to the virus, each consumer assesses risk differently based on where they live, their household vulnerability, available shopping options, and overall risk tolerance. Thus, there exists a broad array of approaches aimed at mitigating risk. These range from the use of a mask and hand sanitizer to shifts in who shops and when, how often, and where they shop.

While something like grocery shopping was not long ago deemed a harmless and almost thoughtless household task, consumers now consciously weigh decisions around their in-person grocery shopping journeys: Elements of the journey (which nearly anyone can attest to can also resemble an odyssey) include planning for the trip, safety while shopping, and then attempts at hygiene relating to unloading groceries at home (Figure 1).

Figure 1: COVID-19 and the In-Person Grocery Shopping Journey

Source: Food Sourcing in America, July/August 2020 (click to enlarge)

Safety while shopping especially when in person

In terms of store selection, safety guides consumer choices of where to shop for groceries, with many favoring stores that offer safety measures and a small, local feel. In-store grocery shoppers are very willing to swap out their usual stores for those offering more thorough safety policies (requiring masks, sanitization, special hours for seniors, etc.) and promising smaller crowds (such as local, smaller-footprint stores). Asked about some of these factors in comparison to before the pandemic, 38% of consumers said they were relying more on stores with adequate safety policies in response to COVID-19, and 24% said they were relying more on local stores because of the pandemic. 22% of consumers said they were relying more on small-footprint stores to avoid large crowds, and the same percentage said they were relying more on stores with special shopping hours for specific groups (e.g., for the elderly) (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Safety Guides Choices for Where Food Is Purchased: Compared to Before COVID-19

Source: Food Sourcing in America, July/August 2020 (click to enlarge)

Compared to before COVID-19 I now...

Although consumers appreciate safety measures taken by retailers, in practice these can also detract from convenience (e.g., long lines or purchase limits on certain items). Safety measures seen as overly restrictive can ultimately deter consumers from returning to a given store location or banner, seeking substitutes that offer a balance between safety and convenience.

In terms of categories purchased and departments shopped within food retailers, six months into the pandemic consumers relied more heavily on less perishable product categories, including shelf-stable and frozen. In particular, demand for non-perishables surged in the early weeks of the pandemic, with huge sales growth in shelf- stable categories like canned goods, dried beans, and rice during the month of March 2020. These items give consumers peace of mind, as they can be stored long term if getting to the store becomes more difficult or supply chains are disrupted. To a lesser degree, consumers are also relying more on fresh categories (meats and seafood, produce) because they are eating more at home than ever before.

Going Forward:

Shifts in where, when, and how consumers shop — as well as what they buy — are primarily driven by safety considerations. Avoidance of viral exposure drives decision making at each part of the consumer journey, dictating their choices in an ever more complex retail landscape.

Even with vaccines on the horizon in 2021, safety will remain on many shoppers’ minds for a long time to come. Many consumers will remain wary of what they touch in the store. Some will continue to wear masks and/or avoid freshly prepared food areas (deli, soup/salad bar, hot/cold case) even as the risk of COVID-19 abates, having become hyper-aware of hygiene and safety in-store.

Many shoppers who shifted their strategies due to COVID-19 are eager to return to their pre-pandemic ways, but some plan to maintain aspects of their new habits. Those consumers who anticipate their post-COVID-19 routines to reflect their current ones and those falling somewhere in between what they did before and during the pandemic represent the greatest opportunity area in terms of retailers seeking to understand safety-minded customers. Unlike those shoppers impatient to return to normal, these consumers are open to continuing programs and services implemented now that appeal to their safety needs in the long term.

Solutions that can reduce stress by delivering modern convenience and minimizing cognitive load are therefore advisable. Manufacturers, retailers, and food service providers can increase consumer trust by becoming more transparent about policies and practices, particularly those regarding safety.

More Information: Food Sourcing in America, July/August 2020