With fully stocked shelves, safer shopping environments, and vaccines, will the goodwill and trust grocers earned in 2020 continue throughout 2021?

Shopping during coronavirus concept

By now, it’s been well documented how 2020 was a turning point for grocery retailers as the pandemic and consumer needs elevated their status from utilitarian providers of “groceries” to essential destinations for shoppers seeking shelter in a storm. The venerable grocery store was a destination that could provide health, wellness, food, sustenance — and now, in 2021, COVID-19 vaccines.

Even the most casual observer of consumer lifestyle over the past year would likely have noted the enormous changes occurring in the fundamentals of how consumers procured food.

Whereas in the “before times,” food culture celebrated a combination of food experiences (ranging from the mundane to the supremely authentic, and gleaned from restaurants and supermarkets alike), the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic brought on difficult, elemental decisions rooted in concerns for health and safety and a search for how to satisfy the demands of everyday meals and eating.

The Hartman Group’s own Food Sourcing in America report carefully delineated the myriad ways consumers worked to “source” their food during the pandemic and found that despite (and in many ways because of) the sweeping changes brought on by COVID-19, grocery stores anchored food procurement strategies for most Americans.

Health & Wellness Allies

According to the Hartman/FMI U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends COVID-19 Tracker, October 1-9, 2020 report, the share of Americans who believed their primary food store is “on their side” for “helping me and my family stay healthy” remained above 60%.

Hartman’s Food Sourcing in America report found that despite a spectrum of feelings, from seeing shopping as a much-needed escape from the house to considering it a newly stressful experience, nine in ten shoppers (91%) at grocery said their store continues to serve them as well or better than before the pandemic started.

Food retailers and their frontline workers have done a more-than-admirable job adapting to a constantly changing environment, all while providing consumers with the staples they’ve needed to keep pantries stocked and households fed.

As a health and wellness destination, with COVID-19 vaccinations now being offered in a wide range of food retailers, these trusted grocers are in an ideal position to capitalize on the esteem they’ve earned from shoppers.

Prior to the pandemic, our Health + Wellness reports established that most consumers associate grocery shopping and cooking at home with healthier habits, while dining out typically falls into habits associated with indulgence requiring moderation.

Maintaining a trusted, high-quality private brand is likely essential to competing in today’s health and wellness market. These products can make a retailer a health and wellness destination. This will become even more important as online retailers continue to press brick-and-mortar grocery stores as contenders in the health and wellness marketplace.

Our research finds that quality private labels from trusted retailers had emerged as an appealing value equation for many wellness shoppers, with 48% saying they use private brand health and wellness products (organics, specialty products, OTCs, supplements), a ten percentage point increase from 2013.

The pandemic has served to magnify aspirations for health and wellness that emphasize eating well as the foundation that supports other aspects of wellness, including immunity and resilience.

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 customers in the context of safety and health and wellness. 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.

Key Considerations: Keeping Pace With Changing Consumer Behaviors

In their long-standing role as centers of local communities, grocery stores enjoy a high level of familiarity and trust among their shoppers, which many strengthened further through quick action in implementing new safety policies to keep shoppers and staff safe.

At the height of the pandemic, in terms of store selection, safety guided consumer choices of where to shop for groceries, with many favoring stores that offered safety measures and a small, local feel.

While behavior is changing, shifts in where, when, and how consumers shop — as well as what they buy — have been driven during the pandemic by safety considerations. Avoidance of viral exposure drove decision making at each part of the consumer journey, dictating their choices in an ever more complex retail landscape. Going forward, 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 and through services that battle the pandemic, such as offering COVID-19 vaccines.

It will be fascinating to see how 2021 plays out in terms of consumer perceptions of their grocery stores as a destination for consumer health and wellness needs. One thing is certain: 2020 was a year in which shoppers found renewed enthusiasm for their local supermarketsonly time will tell if the momentum and esteem generated can be maintained.