From Social Justice to New Modern Convenience and Functional Foods, the Pandemic Has Pushed Many Trends Forward

Young woman with face mask giving coffee to customer

In one way or another, the pandemic has accelerated, altered or accentuated consumer behavior and trends in many spheres of food and beverage culture. Some, like consumer beliefs relating to employee welfare or interests in functional foods and beverages, were well underway and had deep roots pre-pandemic, while others, like our newfound focus on social justice, racial equality and the fragility of the food supply system, seem highly accelerated and newly discovered. In this, part one of a two-part series focused on pandemic-driven food and beverage trends, we note how the pandemic has influenced significant shifts in consumer attitudes and behavior.

An Accentuated Focus on Social Justice, Racial Equality and Community and Employee Welfare

The COVID-19 pandemic has shed light on long-existing inequities throughout society and the food system and exposed them as more acute, particularly among people of color. In addition, the pandemic has revealed the extent to which food and farmworkers are both essential and vulnerable — and made them even more so, bringing labor and safety issues to the attention of consumers more than ever before. Increased attention on social justice issues has brought long-standing labor concerns in the food industry — which have been exacerbated by the pandemic — to the fore. As the pandemic cast a shadow over everyday life, consumers and community organizations banded together in 2020 to lift up their communities. The growth of grassroots aid over the past year exemplifies the rise of community-mindedness among consumers and, consequently, the importance of incorporating aspects of community welfare into how food businesses operate.

Alterations to Traditional Equations of Value

With all the changes wrought by the pandemic, new visions of value that extend beyond old paradigms have emerged, reflecting an expansion in the consumer consideration set in their assessment of goods and services. This change in the value equation is impacting not only their willingness to pull the “purchase lever” but how they form relationships with products and brands. New dimensions relating to value today include expanded consumer definitions of quality, experience and relevance. Our Value in the Time of COVID-19  white paper includes focused analysis of quality (and the rise of health and wellness-related dimensions), relevance (and our deepened focus on utility and consciousness of waste) and experience (with associated connections to enjoyment and engagement). 

Altered Notions of Convenience

The pandemic has accelerated a wide series of trends already in place in food culture, one being pursuit of convenience, but as we noted not long ago, convenience with a modern twistHartman Group research finds that despite many consumers reporting more time spent at home since the pandemic began, they continue to be stretched thin in terms of their time and responsibilities. However, in line with what we’ve called the “new modern convenience,” they remain committed to values of empowerment, engagement and flexibility. These values manifest in a desire for unique, high-quality products and experiences that provide reliable access to enable exploration of new flavors and the ability to gain new knowledge and skills, all while fitting into restraints on time and movement caused by the pandemic and ongoing obligations. 

Acceleration of Limited-Contact Restaurant Ordering

As consumers adapted to the new realities of the pandemic in 2020, a tectonic shift in food culture emerged as they opted out of dining in by making greater use of limited-contact ordering when it came to their use of restaurants. We reported on this shift in our COVID-19’s Impact on Eating reports, which found that demand for such services (which includes ordering ahead by phone, app or website, by electronic kiosk or via drive-through) increased significantly during the start of COVID-19 (spring 2020) compared to the same time period in 2019. Among restaurant-sourced eating occasions, 37% of such occasions were ordered ahead by phone, app or website (up 11 percentage points from 2019), and 36% of such occasions were carried out through restaurant drive-through (up 15 percentage points from 2019). Demand for restaurant delivery has also shot up during COVID-19: 31% of restaurant-sourced eating occasions were satisfied by delivery in spring 2020 vs. just 17% in 2019.

Accelerated Search for Functional Foods and Beverages

In terms of changing behaviors that link to diet and nutrition, the COVID-19 pandemic intensified consumers’ ever-evolving interest in how functional foods and beverages could boost their immunity and overall health and wellness. Our report Functional Food & Beverage and Supplements finds that at least half (55%) of adult consumers claim to use functional food/beverage solutions to treat or prevent a specific condition, including general prevention efforts. There are multiple motivations driving current use of functional foods and beverages (each with its own opportunities and challenges) ranging from general “insurance” to targeted benefits. These motivations correspond with different stakes, expectations of efficacy and degrees of intentionality and loyalty. 

Hartman Insight

As issues of social justice become more and more visible, companies must closely evaluate their values and priorities and ensure that all aspects of their business — from sourcing and production all the way down to corporate communication — are in alignment. It is becoming ever more difficult for companies to remain neutral on such issues, and so companies must aim for consistency and authenticity in communication in order to maintain consumer trust and loyalty.

Up Next: Trends Driven by the Pandemic — Part Two shares highlights of how snacking out of boredom became the norm, how cooking led to cooking fatigue, how we shop for groceries changed and how our perceptions of health and wellness were altered.

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